Military Involvement in Post-Conflict Peace Negotiations

Miranda Melcher

There is a wealth of literature on the best methods to achieve buy-in among key stakeholders in post-civil conflict peace negotiations. Rothchild (1995), Kingma (1997), and Gutteridge (1962) all argue that agreeing specifics, particularly with regards to security issues (Hartzell 1999, Rothchild 2002, Jarstad and Nilsson 2008), is key to ensuring a treaty that can be implemented without contention. Inbal and Lerner (2006), conversely, argue that specifics can be left outside the bounds of a treaty in order to secure sufficient stakeholder support.

To date, however, little academic research has focused specifically on the role that military officers can play in peace negotiations. Stedman (1997) and Atlas and Licklider (1999) highlight ways in which different actors can spoil peace negotiations from both inside and outside the room, especially as groups can splinter internally from negotiation pressures, but does not address military officers as a group. Cunningham (2006) notes that the more people at the table, the more difficult achieving any agreement will be, but again does not differentiate on the type of actors that should be included or excluded. Themner (2017) argues that it is important to consider military actors when discussing peace terms, he does not address the possibility of having military representatives at the table. Additionally, he discusses the impact of military leaders on negotiations, but argues that their background makes them more likely to seek military options rather than negotiate and compromise, a finding this piece challenges.

My research focuses on how to integrate opposing sides into a post-civil war unified military, and analyses the case studies of Angola and Mozambique to examine the peace negotiations and implementation processes in order to build more general principles about how to conduct post-conflict military integration.

Military personnel not only have important war-fighting capabilities, but also unique peace-making potentials that are often overlooked by current theory and doctrine. Soldiers are increasingly familiar with the growing list of demands and skills required of them in their deployments that go far beyond traditional understandings of what it means to be a soldier, which means their insights into conflict resolution can be extremely valuable. In particular, operating in environments without infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters are critical in the early post-conflict periods.

In Angola, there were three peace treaties, with negotiations starting in 1989 and the implementation of the final treaty concluding around 2005. In Mozambique, peace negotiations began around 1990 and implementation concluded around 1998. My argument is that, more often than not, it is useful to have military representatives at the negotiating table, both when discussing issues related to security but also more generally. My argument is comprised of two parts:

  1. Military personnel bring unique knowledge to the table
  2. The buy-in of military personnel into the peace process is necessary for peace to have a greater chance of occurring

For the first piece of the argument, the case of the Angolan civil war is illustrative. The Angolan civil war lasted from 1975-2002 and resulted in four peace treaties, with only the last one actually working in the long-term. What makes it an especially interesting case is that over the course of these four treaties, the role of military personnel and particularly the level of detail given to the discussion of security issues increased from one treaty to the next. Over the past few months, I have been interviewing diplomats and military actors from all sides of the negotiations in order to understand why this might be.

In most modern civil wars, by the time that generals get to the negotiating table, they have deeply personal understandings of exactly what is going on in their conflict. This knowledge is developed through personal exposure to the battlefield environment, providing insight that mediators would not otherwise have. They also have raw knowledge of events that are more up to date than the polished assessments the political elite receive from analysts and think tanks. Therefore, for example, when discussing where troops can move in order for a ceasefire to be implemented, the hard-won knowledge of battlefield dynamics could be useful in producing a plan that is practical as well as political.

Additionally, one common feature of both Angola and Mozambique’s civil wars, like many other conflicts throughout sub-Saharan Africa, was the importance of colonial infrastructure and the fact that there was not very much of it. Therefore, much of the fighting happened in “the bush,” a general term for geographically inaccessible places used to describe many rural places throughout African countries. One common treaty implementation challenge is simply reaching fighters in these areas, as often hiking on foot for days on end is the only method of reaching key strongholds. In Mozambique, for example, the headquarters of the rebel group RENAMO was a 10-day trek into the bush. Their leader Dhklama rarely left the compound due to fear of assasination and thus as peace negotiations proceeded in Rome, all decisions had to be run by Dhklama, who was 10 days away in the bush. Getting communications equipment to him was therefore a priority, but was made difficult due to the conditions. This purely logistical challenge continually threw up roadblocks and delays to negotiations. Relatedly, in both Angola and Mozambique, during the UN peacekeeping missions that were meant to verify and enforce the treaties, UN observers were constantly delayed in deploying due to inaccessible locations that could only be reached on helicopters with local pilots who could navigate the mountainous terrain.

These are all key issues to discuss during negotiations, as they directly impact what kind of timelines and troop movements can be accurately planned for. One common sticking point during treaty implementation is the perception that the “other side” is being unfairly advantaged by getting “extra” time to complete an agreed upon task, or by not being punished for a delay. Often, these delays are not in fact purposeful, but rather the unfortunate consequence of inaccurately planned timetables in the first place. Given their intimate knowledge of facts on the ground, military personnel are often better placed to understand these logistical details than politicians, and thus their involvement in these talks is more likely to yield practicable solutions.

Finally, the third type of specific knowledge that the military brings is their understanding of their troops. While there are often many motivations for fighting in a civil war, at the grand strategic political level, these motivations are often generalised or simplified into statements like “RENAMO are all former kidnapped child soldiers fighting out of fear,” or “UNITA are all anti-Communist pro-democratic freedom fighters,” et cetera. While perhaps that is true for some, the reasons why people decide to fight, and why they decided to keep fighting, are nuanced. These complicated motivations change within a person, between people, and between groups of fighters all the time. Thus, to understand how combatants are feeling, what is driving them, and what kinds of incentives they will respond to, it is best to solicit that information from those who interact with foot soldiers most closely, which tend to be military personnel rather than political ones.

This knowledge of motivation becomes particularly useful when determining what kinds of post-conflict options employment should be available to combatants, particularly if one of them is disarmament and a return to civilian life. Disarmament, the giving up of one’s weapons, is often the single most contentious issue in implementing a peace treaty due to the feelings of vulnerability it inspires in combatants. Therefore, one of the key issues to be resolved in any treaty negotiation is determining the process through which combatants disarm. While there are significant logistical aspects to sort this out, such as who should collect them, where they are stored, how they are transported, et cetera, there is also an important psychological aspect to consider. Namely, how can combatants be incentivised to participate? During the third attempted peace treaty in Angola, sorting out disarmament, which had failed twice before, was the key issue. Both sides, including military generals, agreed that the UN needed to be more involved in the entire implementation process than in previous treaties, including during disarmament. However, the specifics of the disarmament process kept getting stuck on how soldiers would actually turn in their weapons in a cooperative fashion, given the feeling that disarmament would be tantamount to losing the war. Finally, a government general hit on the idea of having fighters turn their weapons over to their commanders in a simple ceremony, which would then be handed to the UN, in order to preserve the dignity and honour of the fighters while also moving constructively towards peace. This was agreed upon eagerly by the rebel generals, allowing the plan to go forward.

Thus, military leaders provide three types of knowledge at the negotiating table that are likely to be unique and have direct bearing on enabling accurate treaty terms to be negotiated.

The second piece of the argument is that having military personnel at the negotiating table makes it more likely for key military figures to “buy-in” to the peace process, and then cooperate with its implementation. First, as previously discussed, if the military is involved in figuring out the specific plans for a ceasefire and treaty implementation, the plans themselves are likely to be more realistic, thus making everyone involved, including the military, more trusting that the plan will actually be pulled off close to schedule. Second, the psychological element is quite straightforward: if the military are involved in the negotiations, they will be more likely to consider themselves a part of the peace process, be more willing to take ownership of the compromises necessary to achieve agreement, and thus less likely to feel that the stipulations are imposed from above and thus not worth cooperating with.

To illustrate the importance of understanding military buy-in to negotiations, Angola is again a useful case study. In the negotiations between the government and rebels, one of the key divisions was within the government delegation: between the political figures and the military generals. The first attempt at a peace treaty in Angola took around two years to negotiate; as the talks got close to the signing ceremony, the government political leaders were nervous about the military capabilities of the rebel side and began trying to delay the actual signing in the hopes of changing the battlefield calculus. The government generals, on the other hand, knew that ammunition was running out, that morale was low, and that the rank-and-file was much more interested in moving to peace than eking out incremental wins in the jungle. In this situation, the international mediators led by the US had developed good relations with both the political and military leaders on the Angolan government side, and so knew from the generals that they were more willing to be pragmatic. Thus the mediators combined the political and military discussion rooms in order to lend emphasis to the generals’ pragmatism over political dogma. This ended up being successful and the signing ceremony proceeded with the government generals driving the implementation process even as politicians lent faint encouragement to the implementation process in the hopes of changing the facts on the ground.

To conclude, including military leaders at peace negotiations is beneficial because:

  1. They bring unique knowledge to the negotiating table which has direct bearing on the quality of discussions and terms agreed on.
  2. Their active participation and acquiescence to the treaty via involvement in its development increases the chances of military figures actively helping make sure implementation goes well (and builds trust between sides).


Image – Decommissioned UNITA BMP-1 and BM-21 Grads at an assembly point

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