Is the US fighting one war, or four?

Linda Blimes and Michael Intriligator ask the surprising (relative to NYT, WP discourse) and interesting question “How Many Wars is the US Fighting Today?” in a short paper that is unfortunately gated.  The gist of it:

In addition to these two large-scale conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan, as of late 2011] the US is also fighting a number of unannounced and undeclared “wars”. These unannounced wars are fought mainly with air power and increasingly with drones rather than ground troops. If we define war to include conflicts where the US is launching extensive military incursions, including drone attacks, but that are not officially “declared,” then the US is directly involved in at least three wars – in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. These unannounced wars follow in the tradition of many previous covert US military incursions, such as in Chile, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The difference is that advanced military technology now enables the US to fight such wars in a different way, which is far less transparent, and to sustain operations over several years.

The comparison to Cold War covert “incursions” is apt, though I don’t think they were far more transparent than our current drone wars.  Moreover, they were arguably less “U.S. wars” than Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia today, because in these recent cases U.S. military (and CIA) personnel are actual trigger pullers on a scale much larger than they were in Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the like.

But is it a war if one side doesn’t have a lot of troops on the ground at risk of getting killed?  And what if the targets are technically civilians and not uniformed troops of the country where they live?  These are reasons why it’s at least not perfectly obvious that these conflicts should be termed “wars” in the traditional sense.   So yes, there are some differences, but as Blimes and Intriligator suggest, there is at a minimum a strong family resemblance as well.  At great cost and a high level of mobilization, the US military is engaged in killing large numbers of presumed combatants (with much collateral damage) who live in countries whose governments may object to the practice.  That’s plausibly described as a war.

Not that this should be at all decisive, but what do the criteria for coding wars developed by the Correlates of War (COW) project have to say about the question?  (COW produces the standard list of interstate wars used in academic research.)  By their criteria, these are clearly not interstate wars, because for this they require ”sustained combat” between the “organized armed forces” of recognized states, “resulting in a minimum of 1,000 battle-related fatalities within a twelve month period.”  We are attacking, or trying to attack, non-state actors, not the uniformed forces of recognized states.*

But these could still plausibly count as wars by the COW criteria—they would be what COW calls “extra-state” wars (formerly, “extrasystemic wars”) which are fights that meet death thresholds and some other criteria between a recognized state and some political entity that is not a recognized state but has “organized armed forces.”  The category was mainly used for colonial wars like the British in Kenya or Malaya in the 1950s.  It seems to have gained a new lease on conceptual life with the rise of state vs terrorist gang and/or rebel-group-in-another-country conflicts since 9/11.

COW also has, appropriately, criteria to distinguish “war” from a one-sided conflict that would intuitively be described as a massacre.  Both sides must be capable of “effective resistance,” which in this case I think means (reading their criteria at the website) that both sides “either commit 1,000 troops to the war or suffer 100 battle-related deaths.”  The US hasn’t suffered 100 battle-related deaths in Somalia, so far as I know, but if “troops” can include all those involved in running the drone attacks, there have got to be well over 1,000 committed to the effort.  (I also don’t know if the 1,000 total killed in a year criterion has been met in these cases, although it seems possible for Pakistan at least.)

Finally, Blimes and Intriligator point out that these wars, if we call them that, are “undeclared” and “unannounced.”  In a paper coming out in Security Studies, Tanisha Fazal has shown that undeclared wars have been the norm for the US, and in fact most other states, for some time now.  The traditional diplomatic practice of declaring war has pretty much gone by the wayside for interstate conflicts.  Fazal suggests that the rise of the international law of war has given states an incentive to lower the likelihood of being accused of war crimes by not officially acknowledging that they are at war.


*COW has criteria for coding states as “members of the interstate system,” not worth getting into here.








3 Responses to Is the US fighting one war, or four?

  1. Scott Althaus May 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m not sure what criteria Blimes and Intriligator have in mind for “unannounced” and “undeclared”, but in terms of formal military operations the fighting in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is considered by the American military to be part of “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF), which in the popular press is usually associated only with the war in Afghanistan. For example, see

    From the military’s perspective, the drone attacks in Yeman, Pakistan, and Somalia are part of a single announced and declared war that began on October 7, 2001. However, this raises the question of what it means to declare a war in which the “other side” is identified neither by name nor by geography. I’d have to check the original documents announcing OEF to be sure, but I don’t recall that OEF was ever constrained to be focused on a single organization or country.

    In a slightly different twist, few people know that what is popularly called the “Iraq War” is actually two military operations. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OEF) ran from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 until August 31, 2010. Starting September 1, 2010 until the present, the American military presence in Iraq was continued under “Operation New Dawn” (OND). So far, more than 60 American service personnel have died and nearly 300 have been wounded as part of Iraqi operations under OND, even though Operation Iraqi Freedom officially ended in 2010.

  2. Corri Zoli May 5, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    Perhaps, I’m getting ahead of myself because we are putting finishing touches on our essay that makes this case, but this discussion over war criteria and many of its arbitrary features (i.e., number of battle-related deaths, ‘sustained combat’ by COW and others, i.e., PRIO) highlights some of the analytical virtues of using an international humanitarian law (IHL) standard to define armed conflict. IHL defines international and noninternational armed conflict (Geneva Convention Common Article 2 & 3) as “difference arising between states and leading to the intervention of armed forces” and as “protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised armed groups or between such groups.” Yes, of course, these are wars–even according to U.S. policy (arguably justified under the AUMF) and for purposes of applying IHL norms. The virtue of these definitions is not only clarity, comparative lack of confusion, but its principled distinction. One need not declare war to make it count as such on this model; nor must there be battle deaths (occupation situations may arise in which a state intervenes without any resistance).

  3. Tu Madre May 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    I really want to tell the truth, and U.S. only provokes other countries to have a war with them. I’m not going to explain it but you, yourself could read it on Internet. U.S. made ‘Bin Laden’ to attack the Twin towers, they don’t have any war. These classical ‘americans’ only get in countries and annoy them deploying their troops, looking at their plans and just are sometimes the worst country there is. And plus in U. S. they have their own terrorists and more than any country , so be quiet