I have been reading a series of essays from a book called "Prolonged Wars: the Post nuclear challenge" edited by Karl Magyar and Constantine Danopoulous and published in 1994.
Each essay focuses on a particular conflict and attempts to understand why these conflicts were protracted or prolonged. Each essay offers up a series of factors. And I think it might be interesting to consider it here.
The factors that seem to dominate are 1) the relative strength of the participants 2) the type of participants (states vs. irregular forces and militias) 3) the level of international involvement. 4) the deep-seeded cultural and social attitudes that underlie the conflict.
For starters, the editors try to distinguish between short conflicts and wars. They point out that the distinctions are subtle and often subjective. Conflicts come in various shades; they can be non-violent, violent,prolonged, or protracted. Violent conflicts will result in some causalities and engagements over a period of time. But they will never be resolved so long as they stay in this phase. They can be prolonged, or depending on the strategy of each participant, protracted. An example may be situation in Kashmir, or of course in Israel and Palestine. A non-violent, but prolonged conflict is Turkey and Greece over Cyprus.
War is a much more intense version of a conflict. It is characterized by the total dedication of the civilian and military resources to the fight by at least one participant. Wars can be, and often are, part of a prolonged and unresolved conflict. Wars themselves do not always end in a clear victor. Take the end of WWI. Treaties were signed, but the underlying problems remained, the conflicts continued cumulating into WWII. The same can be said of the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese Civil War, or any other number of wars that you can think of.
An unresolved war can go dormant, like a volcano after eruption, returning to low grade but prolonged conflict, only to flare up later. This is important because if you look at the conflicts between Iran and Iraq, you will see how the current situation in Iraq feeds into Iran's long-standing strategy for the region. That conflict-cum–war was never resolved.
Prolonged conflicts and warfare benefit no one. Protracted conflict or war, where one side purposely draws out the engagement in the hope of outlasting the enemy is used by insurgent forces when confronted by conventional armies. Maygar points out that Mao Tse Tung effectively used this strategy in his revolution. Mao said that war had two phases. The first was guerrilla warfare. You keep the army off balance by becoming an irritant. Then, once you have acquired a following and little centralized organization, you can switch to more conventional tactics. But Guerrilla warfare is still your primary tactic.
Once Mao became the leader of China and started fighting the Japanese, he said that the first phase of war was to use conventional forces to dislodge or unsettle the opposition. Then in phase two, you would use guerilla tactics to supplement your conventional methods. This would help protract the war and wear down the enemy both economically and morally. Mao understood that quick victory was not possible when confronting a stronger enemy. So you had to use the Wei-ch'i method.
Wei-ch'i is an ancient game where winning is achieved through a progressive accumulation of advantages by capturing territory on a board. It is known to be very complex, so much so that computers have yet to beat the game's experts. In Chess, you capture the king and the game is over. We in the West have little tolerance for protracted war or conflict. We in fact build elaborate social and legal mechanisms to end conflicts decisively and clearly. But in the rest of the world, they have a very malleable relationship with time and truth and a high tolerance for loss, suffering, and conflict.
This is an interesting difference to consider. In the West, we plan short decisive wars, the Gulf War being an example, or the UK in the Falkland Islands. We expect clear cut victories (UK in the Falklands). Yet, in the East, they know how to bide their time. This is what Hezbollah does, what the Palestinians have done, what North Korea and Iran are doing. So when Ahmadinejad says he has people laying in wait in Iraq, he isn't kidding. In fact,leaders like Saddam were expert at playing groups against each other, keeping them in constant conflict. It takes a very careful approach to be successful at protracted war/conflict and isn't always successful and it is very risky.
Finally, the international community also has a role. The Iran-Iraq war is a prime example of how wars can be prolonged, protracted, and left unresolved largely due to miscalculations on the parts of the participants, personal ambitions of individual leaders, and international involvement. That war aged for 8 years largely because the USSR, Europe, and the US were all supplying both sides simultaneously as no one had an interest in seeing that war decisively resolved. Had one side won, no doubt we would not be where we are today in Iraq. We might be in a better or worse position,we can only speculate. Even though a treaty was signed ending the war, the conflict was never resloved. For Iran, it was just one battle in a prolonged conflict. Iran's desire for nukes, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, the strengthening of Hezbollah, and the war in Iraq today are all stem from the unresolved conflict between Iran and Iraq over who would dominate that corner of the globe, who would control the oil, and whether a secular or religious dominion would result.
The beauty of history is that when studied, you can see the coherence of the events that brought is to where we are. Like a puzzle, the pieces begin to fit. It may do us good to start paying attention to what came before in order to help understand what is now and to anticipate what may come.