Credible Commitment Problems In Civil War

Craig Harvey

Credible commitment problems are a long-understood challenge in the international environment. They can manifest themselves in a number of ways, but they are generally understood to apply in situations between two or more parties to a conflict who, after years of brutal war, have finally agreed upon a peace settlement. The problem, though, is that following these periods of war, the parties have little reason to trust each other to implement it. Simply put, there are too many incentives for parties to renege after the other has begun to disarm and demobilise, and utilise their newfound relative advantage over the other. However, in civil war, there are three key areas which tend not to receive as much focus as they should in academia and policy-making, and which in turn further damage the likelihood of a peace agreement’s implementation and long-term survival: the credible commitment of a security guarantor, peacekeeper or other intervener. In the subsequent discussion, the vital assumption is that domestic parties to a conflict wish to implement the agreement, but require assistance in overcoming the mistrust toward each other.

As is often the case with war, operational and political constraints can reduce effectiveness. In intervening in civil war, however, either as a security guarantor or an enforcer of an agreement, these can often be exacerbated. This is the first example of credible commitments manifesting in the intervener themselves. In an interstate conflict, military deployment is often significant and politicians are expecting loss of life in order to defend their interests (see recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq). In civil war, however, interveners are considerably less tolerant of losing their own, reducing their effectiveness. In Kosovo, for example, it was only after 78 days of extensive air strikes that NATO finally forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw, but it is widely accepted that a willingness to deploy ground forces and fly at lower altitudes would have led to a significantly faster termination. Any ‘sensitive’ proposed targets, saw Presidents Bush and Chirac, and Prime Minister Blair reviewing them, often rejecting the target or tweaking the weaponry used. Political constraints such as these reduce the intervener’s effectiveness and their ability to guarantee the security of combatants. In Kosovo, the lack of an effective intervention meant that in the early days little was achieved, and the KLA certainly could not be convinced that if they were to disarm unilaterally, NATO were capable of defending them from those altitudes. Political constraints in Liberia saw ECOWAS stand by and watch ULIMO expand their territory despite the existence of a peace agreement, with the majority Nigerian contingent claiming ULIMO were out of the scope of their mandate as they were not signatories. In doing so, however, they enabled Charles Taylor to identify them as a threat and reason that he could not disarm and demobilise his forces. Both here and in the almost identical example of the Liberian Peace Council expanding their territory, ECOWAS’ political constraints meant that parties could not consider their futures safe enough to implement the agreements. In cases in which political constraints are significant, the lack of commitment from an intervener to do what is necessary does not help to implement agreements.

Along with political constraints, operational constraints can also be said to demonstrate a lack of credible commitment from external parties. In Kosovo, the use of smart bombs in cloudy skies and a Serb force which manipulated radar, meant they were largely ineffective and often landed far from valid targets. The altitude at which pilots flew meant they also could not distinguish between valid targets and woodburners which Serb forces had realised looked like smoking guns from a high altitude. NATO’s contrasting priorities to minimise loss of allied life whilst also minimising collateral damage, meant flying at such altitude that Serb forces could employ camouflage techniques such as these to reduce NATO effectiveness. Similarly, in the heavily forested Liberia, ECOWAS deployed a number of main battle tanks which were ineffective outside of the cities, and the only helicopter was the personal travel of the ECOWAS field commander, making it difficult for them to take the fight to Taylor outside of Monrovia. Particularly in the case of Kosovo, these operational constraints were direct consequences of political choices to avoid NATO casualties, but provided an operational ineffectiveness in the first two of three air campaign phases. In choosing to deploy forces and weapons which cannot easily provide a guarantee of security to combatants, there is no real guarantee. As with political constraints, operational challenges also make it harder for the intervener to guarantee security, further reducing the likelihood that an agreement will be implemented successfully. This is particularly likely if, as in the case of Kosovo and Liberia, parties are aware of the limitations of the external intervener.

The third area contributing to a lack of a credible commitment by external parties is that of empty threats. Costly signalling and its benefits over ‘cheap talk’ has received attention (see James Fearon, 1994; 1997), but the impact of this on civil war termination specifically and its contribution to mistrust between domestic warring parties could be better understood. If one takes the position that a promise to intervene is enough to induce cooperation between factions, then those promises must surely be forthcoming. Otherwise there is no reason for parties to believe that assistance will arrive. In 2013, President Obama famously drew a ‘red line’ in Syria if Assad used chemical weapons. When it was later shown that Assad had used them, he backed down. The reason is unclear with some claiming links to the Iranian nuclear deal, whilst at the time it was widely assumed to be related to the unwillingness of allies to assist him. In cases like this, however, the impact of future promises is weakened as a result. Although it did not happen in this case, it is likely that offers from the US to guarantee security would not have been believed by the parties on the ground, given the history of reneging on promises. Had France not stepped in to the Cote d’Ivoire in 2002, parties both within the Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere would learn of French ‘cheap talk’, reducing the effectiveness of their future promises on future peace talks and implementation of agreements.

In conclusion, the conflicts of today and tomorrow are likely to retain the interest and commitment of the international community. To be truly effective in terminating conflicts at their ‘ripest’, individual states, the UN, ECOWAS and others must truly commit themselves, for the commitment problems that they bring to the table can be just as problematic as those between the parties themselves. Each agreement reneged upon provides a further concrete example for why a party may struggle to trust the other in future agreements. This is a particular problem where security guarantees are involved, in that often they are a prerequisite to the implementation of those peace agreements. There is then a very real possibility that these non-credible commitments from external parties contribute to the further deterioration of conditions on the ground.

Featured Image – A US Air Force F-16C, landing following a mission on Operation Deliberate Force

3 thoughts on “Credible Commitment Problems In Civil War

  1. Very informative and concise explanation that explains clearly and effectively, yet understandable way for everyone to be able to make sense of.
    Nice to read a piece that cuts through usual and sometimes very confusing jargon whilst still maintaining the essential information needed to get the knowledge across.


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