When intermediaries and analysts think about armed conflict they often consider violence an obstacle to a negotiated settlement and thus that one of the keys to unlocking a peace process is the cessation of violence. A corollary of that thinking is that violence is simply a tactic and that armed groups need to be helped to recognise the benefits of a non-violent strategy. However, while the importance of ceasefires should not be under-estimated, the assumption that violence is a tactic that can be replaced by another tactic reflects a partial analysis of the nature of armed groups. Armed groups themselves will often say that they believe in peace and they are struggling for a just peace. In other cases they will say that the violence is an expression of their situation and valid even if it will not bring about change. Therefore to really understand how there can be a transition from military force to politics we need to understand the nature of armed groups. We also need to understand the communities which support them, either explicitly or implicitly, as they too are involved in the thought process discussed in this article and their attitudes are significant influences on the armed group.
Most armed groups have an analysis of their situation in which armed action seems an inevitable, if unfortunate, component. Their existence is often a challenge to the state monopoly on force or its use of terror against their community or class. Some militant groups begin with a theoretical analysis of the state that argues that change can only come through violence, but this is often not the case. Many militant groups have grown out of non-violent democratic movements for change which have been crushed by the state and in some cases the state has consciously preferred the transfer of popular protest into a terror it feels it can control more easily. Ironically, but not surprisingly, armed groups have adopted a cult of force and a power/coercion paradigm from states, imbued with the sense that nations are built through force and the attendant assumption that there is an acceptable level of violence.
The armed group and its supporters will not necessarily have a fully worked out sense of these matters but they will have grasped them intuitively and internalised them as basic aspects of their orientation. So when intermediaries explore with militant groups an end to their violence, they may treat violence as an optional element in the repertoire of options that the group has, when in fact it is an integral part of their raison d'etre and needs to be approached as such.
However, the armed group is open to tactical adjustments in its methods if it sees an opportunity and will manage its military campaign to achieve the best advantage for itself. A ceasefire could give the opportunity for regrouping militarily, presenting a more positive public image and so on. This kind of shift does not imply a deeper change of orientation. But at some stage the military option will have to be replaced by a negotiation process. Even if the military campaign is successful, a process for an orderly handover of power is preferable and this requires some capacity to negotiate the end of the war. So whether dealing with the state or armed groups we can distinguish three possible positions:
- Militancy which believes that military force is the only option
- Dual strategy which still believes in the primacy of force but will use other approaches for tactical advantage
- A conflict transformation strategy
The question for the group is when a transition to a conflict transformation paradigm is appropriate and whether it can manage that transition effectively.
While we can accept that the issue of violence is only one part of the militant mindset, which needs to be appreciated as an integrated whole, we can identify some of its component elements and consider how they may change either as a result of the passage of time or through deliberate interventions which are designed to make dialogue and negotiations attractive. We might think of a set of weighing scales on one side of which are stacked a series of elements tending towards militancy. They include:
- Lack of alternative option – council of despair
- Militant mindset
- Commitment to the campaign
- Avoidance of compromise
- Control of one's own destiny
- Avoidance of splits
There are also material factors which will encourage the continuation of the armed conflict, such as the influence of external sponsors of the conflict or the benefits that the leaders gain from the war economy, but this paper focuses on the internal political dynamics which influence the continuation or curtailment of the military campaign.
On the other side of the scales are other elements that might tend towards a conflict transformation approach, including:
- Real opportunities for change
- Framework document on possible outcomes
- Inherent weaknesses of the military option
- Legitimacy and recognition
- Capacity to minimise risks and concerns
- Guarantees and mutual dependence
- Third-party intermediaries
Can the armed group, with the balance tending towards militancy at a certain point in the conflict, change the balance of forces so that there is a tendency and then a commitment towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict? In turn, the considerations that determine a government's response to a militant challenge inhibit it from changing its own approach so as to encourage the move to the negotiation table. How can an armed group shift from its struggle-sustaining approach, and can its opponents or intermediaries facilitate that shift? A movement within civil society can influence both the government and the armed group towards an awareness that negotiations and dialogue can provide a better alternative to violence but it too needs to understand the factors that maintain the armed confrontation and not be naive about the dynamics at work. Let us look at some of the elements on the scales.