As a child, Noel Anderson remembers seeing armed British soldiers at roadside security checkpoints during childhood visits to his family in Ireland. Those images stuck with Anderson and inspired his future work as a political scientist. Now an assistant professor at U of T Mississauga, Anderson studies civil wars and the effect that powerful third-party states can have on civil conflicts around the globe.
“My work explores changing trends in the prevalence and duration of civil wars,” he says. “Civil wars proliferated during the Cold War, but in the post-Cold War period, we see a decline in the number and average duration of conflicts.”
“The decline of civil war is not something we can take for granted,” Anderson says. “We need to understand what’s driving that decrease, especially if we want to implement policies to continue that decline.”
His upcoming book, Competitive Intervention and Its Consequences for Civil Wars, explores two civil wars that took place during the Cold War era—the civil war in Angola, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—where third-party states intervened to support their competing interests in the respective conflicts. Interventions can take many forms, such as financial support or supplying arms, advice, troops and equipment. Anderson defines those interventions as “two-sided, simultaneous military assistance from different third-party states to both government and rebel combatants.”
Angola’s civil war began in 1975 as a fight between two liberation movements. It became a proxy for the Cold War with direct and indirect international involvement by third-party actors, including Cuba and South Africa, that provided troops and supplies to indirectly support their interests in the region. In Afghanistan, two world superpowers—the Soviet Union and the United States—faced off indirectly in the 1978 conflict between Afghani insurgent groups and the Afghanistan government. As in Angola, the powerful third-party states provided support and supplies to bolster their respective interests. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed or displaced in these long and bloody conflicts.
“There is a belief that intervention shortens conflict—that it can help to end a conflict by helping both sides negotiate an end to armed hostilities, or in helping one side win,” says Anderson. “But an intervention by one side instigates a reaction by another and when states find themselves engaged in a conflict, it’s extremely difficult to withdraw. The opponent has a say about what transpires.”
“Each intervener wants their side to win because they deliver the spoils of conflict,” Anderson says. “But in a competitive intervention, the other intervener is watching and responding in ways that are disadvantageous. Neither side can do what’s necessary to let their side win, which could escalate the conflict into something that neither side wants. Both sides end up investing to maintain a strategic stalemate. Not losing becomes more important than winning.”
“Trends indicate that the world is becoming more peaceful, but that’s only because competitive intervention has become less common,” Anderson says. “But when competitive intervention comes back, civil war comes back.” He points to examples like Russia’s intervention in Syria and the Ukraine, and the intervention of smaller players like Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East. ”Competitive intervention is driving those conflicts. Hopefully, by unpacking the logic behind these things, we can find steps to improve situations like Ukraine, and potentially avoid escalations.”