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.