Small Wars Journal

The Rise of Intrastate Wars

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 10:00am
The Rise of Intrastate Wars:

New Threats and New Methods

by Stephane Dosse

Download the Full Article: The Rise of Intrastate Wars

Ultimately, the war among the people rising is really one of the "symptoms" of a temporary global decline of the concept of "State" and of the interstate warfare. An evolution of the political organizations and practices involves a change of the methods to make war. Nobody can really say what will be the face of war during the next decades even if for the next years, the hybrid threats may probably entail new types of operations which will combine counter insurgency, stabilization and interstate war knowledge. A large share of information and the understanding of the environment, the opponents and the populations should be the keys of the future warfare. The greatest armed forces in the world will thus have to train both for interstate and intrastate wars. What seems to be the most important is to adapt all aspects of these forces to intrastate warfare: command and control systems, organization, equipment, and mentalities. Those who dare not to adapt will run the risk of defeat. To paraphrase Charles Darwin, it is neither the strongest nor the most intelligent competitor that survives, but rather the most adaptive to change.

Download the Full Article: The Rise of Intrastate Wars

Major Stéphane Dosse is a French Army Officer who currently is a student at the Collí¨ge Interarmées de Defense (French joint staff college), promotion Maréchal Lyautey. He is a graduate of the French Military Academy at Saint-Cyr and also holds a Master of Arts in defense and international security from Grenoble University in France. He has deployed to the former Yugoslavia, Africa, and Lebanon.

About the Author(s)


Bill M.

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 11:02pm


Excellent points, and I would add that the world is actually more stable than it has been in many years, but that stability seems to be threatened by a number of factors, factors that will alter the trend lines. Trend lines change over time (that's why they're trends). In my crystal ball I see an emerging trend where interstate warfare will be on the raise again based on a number of factors best discussed in a separate forum. We can't afford to reshape the military to fight solely in intrastate conflicts. That would be a fool's errand.

Addressing another point that the author made about the failure to prepare for intrastate wars will result in defeat. Defeat for who exactly? Why do we need to get engaged in other nations' internal affairs? The Cold War is over, so when is it to our strategic advantagle to meddle? Also we did O.K. in Bosnia and Kosovo after a slow and messy start.
How much tweaking of our military do we really need to do?

Those who will lose in intrastate wars are the involved State and the opposing force(s); we will only lose if we decide to get involved, and then only if we actually lose after getting involved. In the long run losing these fights hasn't been too costly to us strategically (sad to say in a way, but did they really matter to begin with in most cases?). On the other hand, God help us if we lose an interstate war.

Rex Brynen

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 7:55pm


I don't dispute the decline of interstate war post-1945. My point, however, is that "the rise of intrastate wars" took place in the 1960s-1980s, and not now.

Post-Cold War, the general trend line has been towards fewer intrastate wars, whether measured by number of conflicts or conflict severity. Admittedly, post- 9/11 that has levelled off or slightly reversed. See, for example,… (it's a slow load).

I'm not sure we should be characterizing a half-century old (indeed, older) phenomenon as something new.


That's so the wrong answer :). Here's one example.

Statistically, the prominence of inter-state war has given way to intra-state war. In The Transformation of War, Martin Van Creveld explains,

"To support this claim, consider the record, Since 1945, there have been perhaps 160 armed conflicts around the world, more if we include struggles like that of the French against Corsican separatists and the Spanish against the Basques. Of those, perhaps three-quarters have been of the so-called "low-intensity" variety (the term itself first appeared during the 1980s, but it aptly describes many previous wars as well) (p. 20).

Rex Brynen

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 6:45pm

ADTS: In this case, from a prepublication copy of a study by a major international organization that has "not for citation" stamped on it *lol* In my defence, it was sitting a few feet away and was the closest thing to hand. I think pretty much every dataset shows the same thing.

duck (not verified)

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 6:27pm

Cue Gian P. Gentile to make the following points:

1. Will present cherry picked historical data to disagree with the author's cherry picked data to conclude that intrastate warfare has not, in fact, been on the rise.

2. Will attribute author's theories as just another attempt by "coindistas" to force their viewpoint and theories on us all.

Martin VanMeter (not verified)

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 5:03pm

I think intra-state wars may have their origin in "lines drawn on a map" by people who had no respect for the tribal nature of peoples in several parts of the world. Africa, the middle East and southwest Asia come to mind. Tribal loyalty is still much stronger than any real sense of nation hood.

ADTS (not verified)

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 4:49pm

Professor Brynen:

I would be curious where you're getting your data from, e.g., Laitin and Fearon, "Ethnicity...," or some other source.

Incidentally, have you ever read Eckstein's (as in "critical case Eckstein") "On the Etiology of Internal War"? Absolutely smashing.


Concur with Rex, and would add that the author's claim that interstate wars are on the decline is also questionable, and a dangerous assumption to make for strategic decision makers. The author later notes that the State is facing a temporary decline, which implies that interstate wars may increase in the out years, and we can't very well stand up a conventional army from stratch anymore, because we no longer have the industrial base to do so. None the less, I still found the article useful.

Rex Brynen

Wed, 08/25/2010 - 12:29pm

One has to be careful with the argument that we're facing a rising tide of intrastate wars.

First, the number of intrastate wars peaked in the early 1980s/1990s (depending on whether one measures it in terms of casualties or countries affected), and then declined sharply--in part because of the end of the Cold War (which brought to an end proxy wars while facilitating UN PKOs). While it went up a little again post-9/11, it is still lower than it used to be, and much lower in terms of battle-related deaths.

Second, the data on intrastate wars before the 1960s tends not to count colonial policing as an intrastate war (or an interstate one). It isn't clear, therefore, how much comparison we can make.

Third, almost all the countries that experience intrastate wars these days are experiencing the modern resurgence of old conflicts, not necessarily new conflicts arising from erosion of the notion of state. In the 1960s, 57% of civil wars broke out in countries with no previous civil war.. in the 2000s, only 10% of civil wars broke out in countries with no prior history of conflict.

This isn't to say that there aren't changes underway with operational, and even strategic, implications. But I do think we need to be careful not to see a relatively well established phenomenon as necessarily "new."