An example of the first scenario, where we comprehend damage as it happens, is the current spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2 for short. The extent of the harm SARS-CoV-2 will cause depends on the time it will take to find a vaccine or effective remedy but we face a global recession and possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths at the very least.
The second case, in which the public believes society is spiralling downwards even though the facts indicate improvement, is a function of news organizations focusing on events rather than processes. Advancement usually takes place slowly and imperceptibly while catastrophe, scandal and crime are amenable to being captured by the news cycle. One brutal massacre gets more play than the consistent rise in life expectancy over the course of a decade.
To counter this tendency, the late Swedish physician Hans Rosling, who studied public health in Bengaluru in the 1970s, employed creative data visualization to popularize the idea of steady global progress. The linguist and cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, persuasively argued in his book The Better Angels Of Our Nature that rates of violence are significantly lower in contemporary societies than at most earlier points in history.
While Rosling and Pinker provide a necessary counterpoint to pessimists exaggerating negative developments, there are occasions when deleterious occurrences get less attention than they deserve. This happens when violence itself turns into a process rather than an event. Prolonged low-intensity conflicts between governments and non-state forces are the most common exemplars of this unfortunate phenomenon. Strife within Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, drew headlines in the 1990s before going almost entirely off the news radar.
While inter-state wars have declined in the past few decades, the number of intra-state conflicts has jumped dramatically. According to a 2018 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, intra-state conflicts increased from 30 in 2001 to 70 in 2018. Between 2005-18, the number of people killed in such conflicts rose tenfold and the crisis of forced migration got steadily worse. A UN report published last year concluded there are now more than 70 million internally displaced persons and refugees in the world, more than at any point since World War II.
The world is going to focus for the foreseeable future on defeating covid-19 and engineering an economic recovery. Civil wars in places like Yemen, Libya and Syria are bound to garner even less attention as a consequence. While nations batten down hatches, it is understandable if they ignore battles in far-off places that don’t affect the daily lives of their citizens. However, there are two good reasons to keep an eye on those conflicts.
First, there is a greater chance than ever of one or more of these intra-state wars mutating into an inter-state war. Historically, nation states have been excellent at conducting external low-intensity wars through proxies. However, as the conflicts in Yemen and Syria have progressed, they have drawn in the formal militaries of foreign powers. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the US, Israel, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are among the nations deeply involved in these crises, in some cases directly through boots on the ground. A few of the powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, harbour a deep-seated mutual hostility, while others like Russia and Turkey have recently witnessed an ebb in their relationship.
The weakening of multilateral forums and the rise of capricious authoritarian leaders are dangerous features of today’s geopolitics. These leaders have been further emboldened by the withdrawal of the US from its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman. The process began with Barack Obama and has been strengthened for very different reasons by Donald Trump. I draw attention to it not in order to uphold as a period of peace and justice the unipolar “new world order" envisioned by American administrations after the end of the Cold War, but simply to indicate that the nature of inter-state conflict is going to be different in the future.
Last December, Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to move troops into north-eastern Syria by pulling out a thousand US special forces who had fought alongside the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in that region. Since then, fighting has escalated, with Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces directly targeting each other.
With the US out of the picture, the prospect of a winnable war becomes far more tempting. Consider that the Pakistani generals who planned the Kargil occupation of 1999 fully believed it was the inception of a takeover of Kashmir. The Pakistani journalist Nasim Zehra’s book, From Kargil To The Coup: Events That Shook Pakistan, provides a compelling inside look at their deluded plan. The Kargil confrontation, a proxy war converted into an inter-state war, stayed mercifully localized, but we might be less lucky should the strife in Syria or Yemen explode.
The second reason to remain attentive to festering conflicts is that US disengagement has increased the chances of a full-scale civil war returning to India’s neighbourhood. At the end of February, Trump signed a deal with the Taliban, paving the way for a withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan. It came at a time when Afghanistan’s democratic process had failed to produce a consensus leader. The perpetual runner-up in Afghan presidential elections, Abdullah Abdullah, rejected the results of last September’s poll and arranged a swearing-in ceremony of his own in parallel with that of the official winner, the incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani.
In a situation where the Taliban are in the ascendant, US troops are preparing to depart and Afghanistan’s central government is hopelessly divided, it is hard to see what can prevent the country from descending into chaos once more. It is equally hard to envision an end to that chaos, short of the Taliban returning to power in Kabul. We need to prepare for these eventualities better than we did for the coronavirus.
Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.