Dynamics of Civil Wars: The Causes and Consequences of Subsidies to Armed Groups


Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl

Year: 2010
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

Why do the belligerents in civil wars make decisions that result alternatively in conflicts ending or continuing on in the months and years to come? Long wars often involve fighting at a low level of intensity, whether in the sense of infrequent use of violence and therefore low yearly casualties or high levels of violence but little change in the area controlled by the opposing sides. Foreign intervention, too, is often associated with long civil wars. Yet while intervention in a variety of forms is quite frequent, the interests of states pursuing such policies can be unclear and tangential to their national priorities. What motivates outside powers to intervene in civil wars if such intervention makes the conflict more likely to drag on, militates against realizing any short- or medium-term benefits, and indeed may have little impact on the ultimate outcome? Why do belligerents adopt strategies that are unlikely to bring the conflict to conclusion? If conflict persists at low levels of intensity, why is neither warring party able to find a way to escalate and overwhelm its opponent? And, if indeed the parties lack the capacity to escalate, why do they continue to fight at all?

I develop a theory of external assistance as a subsidy to armed groups that explains an armed actor's decision to continue fighting as a product of the strategic interaction between foreign states and the internal warring parties. My core argument is that when external assistance is available to the belligerents it interacts with the internal environment -characterized by the cost of escalation of the fighting and the stakes of conflict -to expand the conditions under which these actors choose to continue to fight. In effect, then, external assistance subsidizes ongoing war. Three principal factors are singled out to help predict whether a conflict will be lengthy: the interests of foreign states in the war-torn country, the cost of escalating the fighting, and the stakes of the conflict.

Empirically, I study the decision to continue to fight through the window of war duration. I test the theoretical account at multiple levels of analysis. An analysis of the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1990, based on field research including 120 hours of interviews with former combatants on all sides of the war, establishes the theoretical account's plausibility. Statistical analysis of civil war duration data for the post-World War II period tests the theory's predictions. I then use a comparative analysis of cases of civil war in Chad and Yemen to rule out alternative explanations and confirm the theory's account of the link between war duration and external assistance.

The findings indicate that external assistance to armed actors in civil war plays an important role in inducing continued fighting, but in interaction with those actors' strategic choices. I show that external assistance is likely once foreign interests in a civil war country cross a low threshold value - in other words, interference occurs in cases far afield from those in which foreign governments have core interests. In addition, as the cost of escalation in fighting increases, armed actors become more likely to choose to continue to fight, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that increasing costs push parties to opt out of war. Finally, as the stakes of conflict increase, the choice to continue to fight becomes more likely. Paradoxically, as the salience of a war decreases, the parties involved become more likely to continue their struggle.