MAKING money and making war have long been related activities. That soldiers loot and arms manufacturers turn a profit is hardly new. But is competition for wealth and resources becoming the major cause of new wars around the world?
Where tribal violence, independence struggles or cold-war rivalry were once blamed for wars, now bandits, traders and some businesses are being fingered, especially in developing countries. Though some conflicts are ethnic or religious clashes (as in Kosovo) or stem from scraps over influence (a concern of Uganda in Congo), many of today's wars, especially civil ones, have a strong commercial element too often ignored by analysts outside, though not by businessmen willing to profit from war.
Prolonged internal violence in countries with rich natural resources but corrupt or weak governments may best be understood as battles for money or resources, suggests a report to be published by the International Committee of the Red Cross this month*. Some wars are caused in a large part by corruption and banditry (Sierra Leone), whereas others which may have begun as ethnic or ideological conflicts, are now sustained in part by illicit trading (opium in Afghanistan, cocaine in Colombia).
Rebels, governments and even peacekeepers have fought for diamonds, minerals and timber in recent wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the latter, peace was won only when the rebels' leader, Foday Sankoh, was given a say in the country's mining industry. A long-running war in Angola, once seen as ideological, is condemned by its people, foreign observers and governments as, to a large part, a scramble for oil (by the government) and for diamonds (by the rebels). In recognition of this, the rebels have even been offered permission to operate the diamond mines legally, if they would come to terms, which they would not. In Indochina, illegal logging can be as valuable as drugs: the Khmers Rouges financed their later campaigns in Cambodia from timber.
Wars in such countries serve some participants well. Violence provides a cover for the extraction and smuggling of resources, and armies, either private or national, give the means to control workers, transport and territory. War itself can be the means of getting rich (for example, in trading arms or by fighting as a mercenary) or of survival (bands of ill-educated young men recruited into armies in Sierra Leone or in Colombia make guerrilla warfare a way of life). Such participants may continue to exploit a war rather than win it and end it.
For outsiders who want to encourage peace, wars for resources may therefore be particularly hard to bring to an end. If the belligerents have no political goals, they may have no interest in negotiation. Those who benefit from war will not welcome mediation. Instead, international efforts to stop the supply of arms to private armies, to forbid trade in diamonds mined in war zones, or to tackle the demand for illegal drugs may be more effective.
But sanctions offer the powerful—those with guns and armies again—the chance to make even more money, by smuggling goods in and out of war zones and then charging high prices. Busting sanctions can be a lucrative business.“Remember, this war is about making money,” explained a Sierra Leonean journalist in Freetown during that country's war, before ticking off the interests of fighters, mercenaries, peacekeepers, aid workers and other hangers-on at the war's edges. The impact of money in war, says the report, should be borne in mind by outsiders whose spending may cause inflation, whose aid may feed rebels and whose trading may prolong the fighting indefinitely.
* Forum: War, Money and Survival. ICRC, Geneva, March 2000.