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On Point

The Global State of War


by Austin Bay
January 12, 2016

President Barack Obama has a penchant for declaring peace. For example, his second inaugural, delivered in Jan. 2013: "A decade of war is now ending," he said. "An economic recovery has begun."

That speech echoed remarks he made on Jan. 5, 2012. Prepping for the presidential election, the president asserted, "Even as our troops continue to fight in Afghanistan, the tide of war is receding."

Looming peace was a central campaign theme. In a column written right after Obama's 2012 remarks, The Washington Post's David Ignatius argued that Obama "was declaring that the era that began on Sept. 11, 2001, is over. Al-Qaida's top leader is dead, and most of its cadres are on the run; secret peace talks are under way with the Taliban. And across the Arab world, the United States is talking with Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist organizations that a few years ago might have been on terror lists."

Yes -- what could possibly be wrong with this picture? Ignatius tied Obama's statement to the administration's strategic "pivot" to the Pacific. Could be. However, a world of more peace and less war was an insistent perception Obama undeniably encouraged, and he certainly implied he shared credit for producing it.

Several analysts make the case that the outright number of wars on the planet began to decline around 1990. It does depend on what constitutes a war. 1990 is roughly the end of the Cold War. In 1991, the U.S. conducted Operation Desert Storm and made Saddam Hussein pay for invading Kuwait.

The Great Congo War, which exploded in 1996, halted the downtrend. That tragedy killed five to six million; no one knows the exact figure. Though Congo's war still flickers, the worst of it lapsed in early 2003. Despite war in Iraq, the global downtrend in conflict deaths accelerated and continued -- for just about a decade.

OK, a shift in a global trend takes time to assess, but by 2012, the downtrend was questionable. The Arab Spring revolts in Libya and Syria added to the death toll.

StrategyPage argues that by 2014, the "tide of war" was rising and that continued in 2015. StrategyPage's editor James Dunnigan began his most recent assessment of wars around the world (published Jan. 1) with precisely this point: "Since 2014, a decade of declining violence reversed and terrorism deaths were up by about 20 percent." Dunnigan fingered the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Boko Haram in Nigeria as the chief culprits for the increase in deaths due to terrorism. They are both Salafist organizations, and they are on terror lists. Talk didn't tame them.

The report analyzed over 30 conflict regions and explores many of the small wars afflicting them. (See: http://strategypage.com/qnd/wars/articles/20160101.aspx.)

Dunnigan noted that Islamist terrorism is a global phenomenon. Islamist terrorists "export" war because they see the planet as one big battlefield. However, he also made an important point for anyone interested in pursuing peace on the planet. Though Islamist terrorism receives extensive media coverage, it is not the planet's top killer. The "small wars that get little media attention" beyond their own regions are the real slaughterhouses. StrategyPage estimated that these so-called "small wars" cause over 80 percent of global combat-related casualties (dead and wounded).

StrategyPage treats Mexico's battle with drug cartels as a low-level but spectacular war. Over time, however, low-level war spills lots of blood. Since early 2007, an estimated 85,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug war-related violence. If drug-war related violence sounds like a murky notion, it is, but it is a murky war.

The assessment also speculates on potential conflicts. China's island-building scheme in the South China Sea could ignite a war because it "violates international agreements ... and is becoming more aggressive." Perhaps more ominously, "China is applying the same tactics against India along their 4,000 kilometer land border." China and India fought a border war in 1962. With or without a U.S. pivot to the Pacific, if the Sino-India war reignites the tide of war would be a tsunami.

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