In Afghanistan, thirteen years after 9/11 and the subsequent campaign to destroy the Taliban, the movement's resurgence continues. A fierce offensive in one of the most contested provinces, Helmand, has killed more than 200 police and soldiers. The government in Kabul says little, but local officials admit that without substantial outside help much of the province will come under Taliban control. The governor of Musa Qala district said on 5 September: “The situation is deteriorating, and the Taliban are almost in the bazaar” (see Rod Norland & Taimoor Shah, “Taliban offensive closes in on a strategic Afghan district”, New York Times, 8 September 2014)
In Iraq, meanwhile, United States bombing raids are being conducted across the north of the country. President Obama is about to announce his strategy for responding to the Islamic State, a strategy which will probably set the course for many years (see Julie Hirschfeld Davis & Helene Cooper, “Obama is set to make case for offensive against ISIS”, New York Times, 7 September 2014). This, is it worth recalling, comes a decade after an openDemocracy column was able to report that opposition to the western occupation of Iraq was accelerating (see "Iraq between insurgency and uprising", 12 August 2004).
In Syria, close to 200,000 people have died in more than three years of civil war. In Libya, intense conflict between rival militias and the government is crippling any hope of post-conflict stability. Then there is Nigeria, as well as Mali, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, let alone Ukraine and now the border dispute in Estonia.
Overall, this litany suggests that the current global period is one of deep conflict. Yet a longer-term view may see both signs of hope and the potential for major improvements in conflict prevention, mediation and post-conflict peace-building. After all, in 1994 much of the world was mired in conflicts: in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, in Chechnya's gathering tensions, in the destructive instabilities of parts of central America, in the Balkans with its ever more serious wars, in the appalling insecurities of the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Even South Africa was barely beginning to escape from the wounds of the apartheid era.
Not all of these conflicts are by any means resolved. Yet there has been progress in many areas, and here a neglected features of the past few decades deserves attention: the huge increase in experience of the processes of conflict resolution. This is highlighted by a remarkable new book by two specialists in the field: Gabrielle Rifkind and Gianni Picco's The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution (IB Tauris, 2014).
The authors between them have a wealth of practical understanding. Gabrielle Rifkind runs Oxford Research Group’s Middle East programme, which has worked over many years to bring different sides of the conflicts in the region together for informal yet often highly significant discussions. Much of what is done is scarcely known in public but includes some remarkable initiatives on the current differences between the United States and Iran. She is also a practising group analyst. Gianni Picco, a United Nations undersecretary, has many years experience of more formal intergovernmental involvements, principally with the UN; over the past two decades he has focused principally on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, and has a particular expertise in negotiating the release of detainees, including hostages.
The core argument of The Fog of Peace is straightforward: that the most important element in the conflict-resolution process - though it is often forgotten - is that antagonists understand their opponents as individuals; where they are coming from in terms of culture, history and experience; but also the ambitions and resentments that help condition their thinking. They quote the former US defence secretary Robert McNamara who oversaw some of the most devastating years of the Vietnam war but changed his approach to conflict greatly in later years: “We must put ourselves inside their skin and look at ourselves through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions”.
All this may be essential if parties to a conflict are to have a hope of reconciling their differences, especially in the aftermath of great violence. Yet if the parties need to see the conflict through other eyes, it is also necessary for the mediators themselves to recognise their own attitudes, preconceptions and cultural environment. The authors pose a pointed question of participants from western cultures, namely “whether it is possible for western governments to move away from their comfortable certainties in which there is a belief that they stand for universal good”.
Another requirement is awareness of the fact that the great majority of conflicts end in uncertain and possibly unstable outcomes, and that these may involve many years or even decades of work to cement a lasting peace based on truth, justice and reconciliation. Such work will most often be built be the communities themselves, but the latter can readily learn from the experience of others, especially if there is assistance available with an international dimension.
These insights reflect the particular value of Picco and Rifkind's combination of expertise as embodied in The Fog of Peace. Many attempts at transnational facilitation have come through the UN system, of which Gianni Picco has considerable experience, but NGOs have also had their role. In Britain alone, such groups as International Alert, Conciliation Resources, Peace Direct and most notably the Quakers have acquired considerable experience, and Gabrielle Rifkind - not least through Oxford Research Group’s work - is thoroughly immersed in it.
The book itself ranges widely over many of the conflict episodes of recent years, drawing lessons of success from some and difficulties from others. They point out that it is an area of work where intergovernmental and non-government initiatives do not always work well together. They focus on enduring elements in conflict, such as the military-industrial complex with its pervasive and so often negative impacts; but also on new trends in warfare, not least war using armed-drones, privatised military companies, special forces and other elements of remote control.
If there is a single enduring theme in the book it is the need for empathy - which, the authors point out, is not appeasement. At times this might be incredibly difficult, witness the extraordinary problems in trying to understand the mindset of the Islamic State. Yet even that is necessary, for without it there will be little chance of building any peace in Iraq and Syria.
The Fog of Peace was written before the Islamic State came to the fore in June 2014, yet it has much to say if we are to come to terms with and meet the challenges of this new embodiment of the al-Qaida world vision. In this sense the book reaches back to the last few decades and forward to the next, providing an urgent toolkit of ideas that can help all sides move beyond conflict.
This review originally appeared on openDemocracy on 8 September 2014.