Understanding Conflict

November 29, 2007
Brendan O'Leary, Lauder Professor of Political Science and Director of the Penn Program in Ethnic Conflict, grew up thinking that ethnic conflict came standard with domestic politics. During the childhood years he spent in Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil War began when, in his neighborhood and in his own garden, members of Hausa ethnic group attacked the Igbo people. O'Leary was then sent to school in Northern Ireland – just as the Northern Ireland conflict began. O'Leary also had an intimate perspective on the damaging effects such conflicts had on his father's development work in countries like Sudan and Uganda.

These early experiences helped inspire O'Leary's career as a leading scholar on ethnopolitical conflicts around the world. This year, he published Terror, Insurgency, and the State, which he co-edited with John Tirman and the late Marianne Heiberg. The book is the result of a multiyear project that assembles the findings of more than a dozen scholars who have conducted extensive field research with long-standing insurgent groups that use terrorist tactics.

The collective work of these researchers offers a comparative analysis that assesses which government policies are most and least successful in bringing these insurgencies to an end. The insurgencies studied represent a range of motivations, locations and levels of political success. However, they are all situated in democratic or partially democratic states that struggle to deal with insurgent groups while maintaining their core principles.

"It's not interesting to learn that a dictator defeats an insurgency by absolutely massive repression," O'Leary says.

O'Leary explains that some conclusions the researchers came to are familiar to political scientists but have not been well disseminated – for example, there is no such thing as the ‘terrorist personality,' and insurgencies that use terrorism are an old phenomenon in human history.

"Insurgents who use terrorism are normal – that means they're not psychologically deranged or disturbed," O'Leary explains. "So, there's absolutely no point in spending money looking for the ‘terrorist personality.'"

Many of the book's other findings lend new perspectives on how governments can best handle insurgencies. It deeply matters, for example, what type of prison policy a government adopts toward insurgents. When a country treats imprisoned insurgents as political prisoners — a distinct category of persons — they may organize within the prisons and report to their own command structures. While this policy can anger pro-government civilian populations, it also means that the government has a collective actor with which it can bargain. The contrary policy of isolating these prisoners or treating them as common criminals may fragment their capacity to be organized within a prison, but it can also undermine the government's ability to make binding bargains with the insurgent organization.

The researchers also came to the surprising conclusion that national and ethnic conflicts are capable of resolution without governments necessarily conceding to the demands of insurgent organizations. Successfully government policies include: restraint from repressive or violent overreactions; governmental flexibility in committing to autonomy and power sharing settlements that fall short of independence; and sensible and creative exploitation of mistakes made by insurgents themselves.

"Governments have the ability to be much more intelligent in their policing and legal strategies than one might imagine," O'Leary says. "The collective tendency of governments during the onset of an insurgency is almost invariably to be rapidly repressive, and that can have long-run and disastrous consequences. Very often insurgents are seeking an overreaction as a way of building their movements."

Terror, Insurgency, and the State furthers knowledge on a subject about which O'Leary says there is little cumulative research. Many studies have been conducted on individual insurgencies, but few have the scope to draw more comprehensive conclusions. O'Leary explains that executing independent research on government policy toward insurgencies poses many complications.

"It's difficult to establish an independent research career in this domain without jeopardizing your security status, and it's difficult for governments to fund independent research that will come back and tell them that they are behaving badly," O'Leary says.

The book also studies insurgencies that have garnered little attention in the wake of the coverage devoted to Al Quaeda — a group the researchers chose not to include because none of the scholars could reasonably be asked to do fresh field-work with them. However, O'Leary thinks the insights of this book might be used to better understand the case of Al Quaeda.

Currently, O'Leary is conducting research on Kurdistan's future in Iraq and is continuing his work advising the Kurdistan Government on the ongoing debates about Iraq's constitution. He is also director of the Penn Program on Ethnic Conflict, which was launched this fall and aims to advance research and education about ethnic group conflict and political violence.

"One of my key intellectual interests is in the very raw material of the foundation of states and democracies, how they come to some underlying consensus about who is entitled to the powers of government, and how states manage nations," O'Leary says.