Competitive Intervention and its Consequences for Civil Wars

Noel Anderson, Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dissertation Fellowship, 2015

This project explores two interrelated puzzles about external intervention and internal war. The first asks why rebels, governments, and third-party interveners often continue to invest in costly and protracted conflicts rather than sue for peace and a negotiated settlement. The second considers the consequences of these behaviors for temporal variation in the average duration and global prevalence of civil wars. A central finding that emerges concerns the critical role of competitive intervention—two-sided, simultaneous military assistance from different third party states to both government and rebel combatants—in the dynamics and intractability of civil wars across time and around the globe.

Developing a generalizable theory of competitive intervention, the project explains the distortionary effects this form of external meddling has on domestic bargaining processes, describes the unique strategic dilemmas it entails for third-party interveners, and links its varying prevalence to international systemic change.

It uncovers a feature of this form of intervention—namely, that “not losing” is often more important than “winning.”

In doing so, it moves beyond popular anecdotes about “proxy wars” by deriving theoretically grounded propositions about the strategic logics motivating competitive intervention in civil wars. It also uncovers a heretofore overlooked feature of this form of intervention—namely, that “not losing” is often more important than “winning” from the perspective of third-party interveners under the shadow of inadvertent escalation.

The theory is tested with a mixed-method design that combines statistical analyses of all civil wars fought between 1975 and 2009 with detailed case studies of competitive intervention in Angola (1975–1991) and Afghanistan (1979–1992). The project’s theoretical and empirical results shed new light on the international dimensions of civil war, address ongoing debates concerning the utility of intervention as a conflict management tool, and inform policy prescriptions aimed at resolving some of today’s most violent internal conflicts.

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