Home > News > Uniting warring armies after a civil war sounds like a good idea. Here’s why it usually fails.
125 views 12 min 0 Comment

Uniting warring armies after a civil war sounds like a good idea. Here’s why it usually fails.

- April 3, 2016
Members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army get off a U.N. plane upon arrival at Juba airport on Monday as part of the peace agreement between rebel forces and the government in August. This is the first military platoon transferred from rebel-controlled areas to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP viaGetty Images)

South Sudan has again lapsed into civil war.

For more than two decades, the Dinka-dominated Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought the Sudanese government and its local ally, the Nuer-led South Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF). Then in 2006, a year after the SPLA and Sudan’s government ended the war, the Juba agreement provided for integrating SSDF soldiers and officers into the SPLA, on the theory that doing so helps unite post-civil-war nations.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/10/30/how-to-to-unite-former-enemy-fighters-into-a-single-national-army-and-reunify-a-country-while-youre-at-it”]How to unite former enemy fighters into a single national army and reunify a country while you’re at it[/interstitial_link]

Regional and international forces greased the wheels of peace. The East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development was nominally in charge, but the United States, eager to enlist a stable Sudan in its efforts against terrorism, drove the peace process behind the scenes. The wheels, however, soon fell off.

Peacebuilders often try to integrate former fighters after civil wars, to sustain peace

According to Caroline Hartzell, nearly 40 percent of the 128 civil war settlements between 1945 and 2006 included plans to integrate both sides’ fighting forces into a single army. The community of international peacebuilders is so committed to this idea that international mediation is the single best predictor of whether military integration will follow a civil war, she finds. The practice follows from the conventional wisdom, endorsed by the World Bank, among others, that building inclusive institutions is the key to preventing a relapse into war.

But does it work? To find out, we examined 11 cases, stretching over three continents and four decades: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Congo, Lebanon, Mozambique, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Our research suggests that, for the most part, the international community’s faith in military integration is misplaced.

Bringing together former opponents into a single national army sounds like a great idea

It isn’t entirely intuitive that bringing together the very people who have been killing one another with considerable skill and enthusiasm and giving them guns will dampen the flames of civil war. But there is a logic behind military integration. A united, professional, communally representative army could demonstrate to former opponents and vulnerable populations that the government is committed to sharing power, refraining from violence, and protecting all citizens from extremists. It could provide gainful employment to former fighters from all sides, who might otherwise stir up trouble. Symbolically, an inclusive army could offer a vision of a unified nation.

But these are just hopes, backed by little evidence. Few studies look at whether military integration provisions in civil war settlements help keep nations at peace. And these studies disagree with one another. The main problem is that they tend to look at the formal rules governing integration, rather than whether it was put into practice. And, even though many experts have reported on the weaknesses of military integration in the cases they know well, we have no systematic evidence comparing different nations’ efforts. That lack of evidence is especially troubling because military integration after civil war is so common.

But it only works if the conditions are right for peace

We’ve found that countries can successfully integrate their military forces — but only if warring factions want to. In other words, if there’s peace after military integration, military integration didn’t cause it; integration and peace are both effects of the favorable underlying political circumstances under which the war ended.

When local players resist deep military integration, they distrust one another or want different things — and the peace is going to be fragile for the same reason. Whether the peace will last — and whether the militaries will integrate successfully — both depend on the same interests, institutions, ideas, and deep historical structures.

So military integration rarely creates durable peace. On the flip side, the failure of military integration is rarely the primary reason civil war flares up again.

Does military integration ever work to bring peace?

Well, not really. As expected, the deeper the postwar integration, the less likely a country will revert to civil war. The 11 post-civil-war nations that we examined differed on several dimensions of military integration — whether soldiers in the new army came mostly from one side or another; whether individual fighting units were themselves integrated, or still segregated by their former loyalties; and whether one side or another dominated the officer corps. Even so, out of our 11 cases, we didn’t find a single one showing that military integration made a difference in whether the country did or did not return to civil war.

Here’s the breakdown.

1. Shallow integration and a return to war

In four cases — the Philippines, Rwanda, Sudan (1972) and Zimbabwe — military integration was half-hearted. Fighting resumed after each country’s civil war, and the militaries didn’t integrate deeply for the same reasons the peace ultimately failed. Sudan, for instance, fell back into civil war not because the parties refused to integrate their militaries, but — ironically enough — when President Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri tried to deepen military integration and strengthen the Sudanese central state.

2. Mixed integration and a durable peace

In four cases — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — military integration can’t take credit for what appeared, at the time we completed our empirical research in early 2015, to be reasonably stable polities.

Bosnia’s military, for instance, is a small, politically irrelevant force whose units are still organized by nationality. The army reflects the same communal divides that persist in Bosnia itself.

In the DRC, weak military integration was a prerequisite for the negotiated settlement because regional warlords opposed a strong central government that would interfere with their corrupt ventures and abusive ways. Not surprisingly, the country’s army now stands accused of atrocities against the civilians it is supposed to be protecting.

3. Deep integration and a durable peace

In Burundi, Lebanon and Mozambique, the militaries were substantially integrated, but other factors are more responsible for the fairly durable postwar peace these countries have enjoyed. For instance, in Lebanon, the integrated military is hamstrung by the country’s fragile sectarian politics. It cannot serve as a bulwark against the renewal of civil war.

The international community’s faith in military integration is misplaced

Military integration, whether deep or shallow, doesn’t generally tell us whether post-civil-war peace will endure or collapse. It works to build peace only under rather restrictive conditions (as we explain at length here). It doesn’t seem to have a large effect on local actors’ strategies or goals. This is true even when the resulting militaries are the most successful and legitimate national institutions in the postwar polity. Former combatants have too often stepped easily out of that united military and gone back to war.

The international community has made military integration a priority. But this is worrisome, especially when international peacebuilders bypass local stakeholders, and locals see the military merger as a foreign imposition. And it can be downright counterproductive: if the new military is strong, and the central state otherwise weak and ineffective, generals may be tempted to interfere in domestic politics — or even start eyeing neighboring states.

If integrating former fighting forces doesn’t seem to help build peace, why has the international peacebuilding community found it so appealing? We can speculate. First, military integration fits nicely with peacebuilders’ conviction that inclusive political institutions are needed for stability. Given that enduring worldview, military integration seems the only viable alternative. Second, and perhaps even more important, merging military forces may seem feasible compared to the daunting task of transforming civilian political, judicial, and law enforcement institutions, which threatens even more entrenched interests and is sure to call forth resistance.

In short, the benefits of military integration are unclear, the costs potentially substantial, and the outsiders pressing for it do not bear the consequences. International peacemakers might wish to focus on solutions backed by greater evidence of effectiveness.

Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Minnesota and author of “Narrative and the Making of US National Security” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Roy Licklider is professor of political science at Rutgers University, adjunct senior research scholar in the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and editor of “New Armies from Old: Merging Competing Militaries after Civil Wars.” (Georgetown University Press, 2014).