MM 2001: Looking for the next Balkans

December 21, 2000

Where in the world will major conflict flare up next? Tim Cornwell considers the likelihood of Pakistan and Colombia being the future flash points

Guided cockroaches scuttling under doors to pinpoint enemy patrols in close-combat urban warfare. Killer robots the size of a grain of sand to search for and kill future Saddam Husseins. "Morphed" holograms of these same rogue leaders ordering a national surrender. These are just some of the visions of future war emanating from the United States. But their clean-killing, high-tech scenarios of 21st-century conflict have drawn much scorn from European veterans of the Balkans and Rwanda.

The contemporary study of war and conflict reflects a world in which rapid change has left big winners and losers: the US is basking in the largest peace-time boom in history, while other regions totter on the brink of medieval anarchy. In the delicious jargon of the so-called revolution in military affairs, the US looks to "full-spectrum dominance" on the battlefield, to establish "information superiority" and strike at will through a "system of systems". On the ground in West Africa and the Balkans, however, low-tech conflicts are fought by rape and mutilation, massacre and forced relocation, driven by the forces of poverty or ethnic hate.

The study of war and migration share a common handicap: of huge popular and political interest, they have been short-changed by the academy, certainly in the US. In forums such as the Organisation of American Historians, military history has been sidelined by cultural, social and gender studies. Of about 2,600 demographers in the US, the leading sociologist Douglas Massey notes, only about 120, including students, express interest in migration.

Migration has remained a poor cousin of population growth studies, though the politics shaping immigration laws for the 21st century play to a poignant paradox. The US and other countries are attempting to promote the free traffic of every economic commodity except one: people. For most of history, migration to another country was an act of extreme boldness or desperation; now the internet means migrants can pay a virtual visit to a new home or keep contacts with the old country alive. But from the Berlin-style barriers on the US border with Mexico, to legislation in Britain providing vouchers instead of welfare benefits for new immigrants, immigration laws demonstrate an isolationist bent at odds with globalisation.

Goodbye Balkans, hello... Pakistan? As journalists and academics seek a new theatre of conflict on which to sharpen their pens, South Asia is a likely candidate. So says Robert Kaplan, the much-travelled writer on war and strife-torn regions of the world. In a recent article for The Atlantic Monthly on "The lawless frontier", Kaplan described the "institutional meltdown" of a country that "could be a Yugoslavia in the making, but with nuclear weapons".

Pakistan's problems differ from those of former Yugoslavia, Kaplan has said, because they derive from globalisation; it is not merely that Kashmir is the flash point for conflict with India. Dynamic capitalism inside Pakistan has created an unstable mix, a new middle-class elite amid a roving army of impoverished, low-paid factory workers, who were until recently part of a rural, agriculturally based culture.

Another area of future conflict is Colombia. This, the subject of several academic conferences in recent years, promises a tragically fertile ground for study. Ken Sharpe, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College, sees the US fighting the drug war in Colombia not as another Vietnam but another El Salvador, via surrogates. Colombia already has a million or more "internal refugees", forced to flee civil strife, and the Colombian army, the new US ally, has in the past shown little respect for human rights. A new wave of US-backed chemical crop spraying, combined with counter-insurgency operations aimed at rural coca growers and the guerrillas who protect them, is likely to create new migrations in what critics regard as an unwinnable war.

The guardians of the Pax Americana in Washington, of course, are never quite as naive as Europeans would like to think them. "Asymmetry" has recently become a cautionary concept in US strategic thinking, according to the experts, though it is as old as Sun Tzu and Agincourt, and as new as the Vietnam war. Since the Gulf war, this thinking goes, no one is volunteering to challenge the world's only superpower in conventional state-to-state war.

Adversaries will play instead to their strengths: nuclear, biochemical or internet terrorism, precision weapons aimed at US deployment, the use of civilians as shields, a willingness to kill and be killed, fighting dirty to a degree that the world's policemen cannot reciprocate.

The revolution in military affairs, like it or hate it, has defined the debate about new and old wars. European commentators have set out to deny the US or European military much comfort from the operation in Kosovo - though its superficial success in driving Serbian forces out will be greatly enhanced by the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. The air war, according to Exeter University's Jeremy Black, marked a revolution not in military tactics but in attitudes, in particular an unwillingness to suffer casualties. For Michael Ignatieff, who worked with the BBC on a three-part documentary on the future of war, America and its Nato allies fought a "virtual war" in Kosovo because they were not ready or willing to fight a real one.

Recent analysis of the Balkans, including that by Mary Kaldor, has tried to undercut the easy cliché that the conflict was motivated by deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. Fear and hate were instead mobilised and "reconstructed" for political purposes, and journalists too easily bought Serbian propaganda suggesting that ethnic differences were irreconcilable.

The conduct of the allied bombing campaign, meanwhile, brought a superficially sanitised cyber-war in which lawyers literally called the shots on what were acceptable targets. Western soldiers, meanwhile, were expected to behave in the field more like policemen and social workers and never fire first. At the same time, the fall of Srebrenica and the massacres that followed stand in the memory as a bad case of failure.

Persistent critics of the Kosovo action argue that before the bombing campaign, about 230,000 people had left their homes; by its end, about 1.4 million were displaced. For the future, the West must debate the logic and ground rules for police actions, amid the odd spectacle of humanitarians demanding military intervention to protect civilians.

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