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Urbanization of Warfare

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Introduction

War, being essentially a social phenomenon, tends to occur where people live, and as a result much conflict has now become urban.1Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, Focus stratégique, No. 88, Ifri, March 2019. Currently, an estimated 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with 2008 marking the first time in history when a majority started living in cities.2Ibid. By 2030 it is predicted that number will increase to 60 per cent – meaning that one in three people worldwide will live in a city.3Outcome Report: When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas, An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and InterAction Roundtable, May 2017 As urbanization increases, the problems of population growth, poverty and hunger provide the ingredients to fuel conflict, revolution and insurgency.4RAND Corporation, Monograph Reports: The Urbanization of Insurgency: The Potential Challenge to U.S. Army Operations, 1994 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that around 50 million people worldwide are affected by armed conflict in cities.5Outcome Report: When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas (supra n.3) Combat in cities can be the most destructive type of warfare which can leave effects for generations.6Modern War Institute, The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It, John Spencer, March 28, 2019 This is due to the densely populated terrain and infrastructure which supports human life present in these urban centres.7Ibid. An average of eight times more people are killed in conflict in urban areas as opposed to those waged in rural environments.8Humanitarian Alternatives, Urban warfare: a challenge for humanitarian law and action, Julien Antouly, March 25, 2019

This month, the DLP Forum addresses the issue of wars in cities, analysing the growing reverberating effects of these conflicts. The articles on the Forum explore how cardinal principles of international humanitarian law can be applied to reduce human suffering in such conflicts; they also analyse how globalization contributes to growing urban warfare and the debate surrounding the topic of using civilians as human shields in combat. Together, they shed light on an interesting and somewhat under-researched area of study which promises to be all the more important the more the world urbanizes.

Understanding Urban Environments

Cities formed as a result of an agricultural surplus when there was a need to protect a development for religious, defensive and trading means as well as other needs.9Modern War Institute, The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It, (supra n.7) The number of cities grew after the Industrial Revolution and the resultant advancements in supply methods and transportation.10Ibid. Cities now are formed of complex, manmade physical terrain, populations of varying but significant sizes, and supporting infrastructure.11Ibid. Historically, cities were the “engines of economic development and growth, centers of power and wealth, crucibles of culture and scholarship, and drivers of innovation and entrepreneurship…that facilitate the flows of goods, people, ideas, and capital which sustain, deepen, and expand global commerce, investment, prosperity, productivity, and seemingly limitless human potential.”12Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, (supra n.1) In many ways, they remain important centres of power and capital, with approximately 80 percent of global GDP is generated in cities.13Ibid.

As people migrated to cities they were given access to services which were not available in rural areas such as electricity, running water, sanitation, education and employment.14Ibid. However, ever-expanding populations means that not all those who live in cities have their needs met and there is also increased inequality in access and provision of services compared to rural areas.15Ibid. Large populations, poverty, competition over resources, and poor governance often makes cities more vulnerable to political unrest in the form of violence and conflict. Moreover, migration to cities also occurs as a result of conflict or persecution with nearly 60 percent of the world’s refugees and 80 percent of the world’s IDPs live in cities and urban slums.16Ibid. This can form ethnic, racial or religious divides across the city which further foment unrest. Understanding urban environments and the potential for conflict is all the more important for the developing world as 90 percent of all urban growth is happening in Asia and Africa.17Evans, Michael. “Future war in cities: Urbanization’s challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century.” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 98, no. 1, April 2016, p. 37-52.

The Move: Rural to Urban Conflict

Traditionally, cities have served as the epicentre for conflict, insurgency and revolution with the countryside only factoring in as a place for escape until the main battles were over.18RAND Corporation, Monograph Reports: The Urbanization of Insurgency: The Potential Challenge to U.S. Army Operations, 1994 Rural areas were often seen as spaces over which control was easily and quickly consolidated whereas conflict over urban spaces were hard to win.19Ibid. As rural populations migrated to urban areas, often due to poverty, hunger and conflict, the guerilla forces which depended on them for aid, support, information and concealment also followed them.20Ibid. They were able to obtain support and gain recruits from these newly transplanted and culturally alienated villagers in these cities, as immigrants often clustered in the same places and were susceptible to manipulation by promises of economic gain in return for allegiance.21Ibid. As a result, cities today are what jungles were in the 1970s and 1980s – the new battlefields where conflicts and insurgencies are fought.22Ibid. Civilians thus become enmeshed in conflicts between non-state groups and the state as the epicentre for fighting moves into their areas.

The move to urban conflict for guerillas and insurgency movements comes with its benefits – they are able to enjoy control over territory, the allegiance of part of the population, a secure base for operations, and opportunities for media coverage and international attention that would not be available in the jungles or isolated mountains.23Ibid. Cities also offer substantial political rewards due to the concentration of important infrastructure, such as energy and telecommunication lines as well as lucrative and high-visibility targets such as airports, malls, and hotels.24Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, (supra n.1) They also offer an opportunity for camouflage as members of insurgent movements can physically conceal themselves among the civilian population.25G.J. Ashworth, War and the City, London, Routledge, 1991 The population in cities becomes a third-party player to the conflict where objectives are to ‘win hearts and minds’ of the people.26Humanitarian Alternatives, Urban warfare: a challenge for humanitarian law and action, Julien Antouly, March 25, 2019 and Interview with Eyal Weizman, International Review of the Red Cross (2016), 98 (1), 21–35 This often results in decisions which hinge on which populations are to be either hurt or protected as wars are waged close to where people live.27Ibid. Their fates being inherently tied up with the conflict.28Ibid. Moreover, slums and densely populated urban areas can serve as well as jungles or forests in the fact that those who participate in these movements are more accustomed to them than say the state’s security forces.29RAND Corporation, Monograph Reports: The Urbanization of Insurgency: The Potential Challenge to U.S. Army Operations, 1994 As such, slums in the developing world can be as unknown to a state’s armed or security forces as the jungles of yesteryear.30Ibid.

While insurgents believe that cities have great political, psychological and logistical value and are to be conquered in times of combat, most urban based insurgencies have however failed.31Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, (supra n.1) This is in part due to the concentration of state power in cities which means that conflict often becomes protracted and harder to win.32Ibid. Moreover, identity based mobilization is harder for insurgent or non-state groups in cities than in rural areas as residents are often divided on religious or ethnic lines lacking the deep-knit kinship ties which characterise such groups in rural areas.33Ibid.

Karachi is an interesting case study in the growth of urban violence and transnational criminality which also illustrates these issues well.34Sampaio, Antonio. “Before and after urban warfare: Conflict prevention and transitions in cities.” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 98, no. 1, April 2016, p. 71-96. A key driver of the instability and fighting in the city is connected to refugee flows from neighbouring conflicts over three decades, propelling population growth of 115 percent between 1998 and 2011.35Ibid. This has led to sprawling slums in the city contributing to the development of around 200 criminal gangs and also extremist groups which compete for votes, lands, jobs and extort protection money out of its inhabitants.36Ibid. As a key trading hub for the country though, it remains a place where the state is trying to quell violence from various groups clamouring for control over a city which is Balkanized along ethnic lines.

IHL and Urban Warfare

Military operations in urban areas have been destructive and resulted in much human suffering. Recently, the threat to civilians and civilian objects in cities has been seen in Aleppo, Mosul and Sanaa where indiscriminate bombing has resulted in civilians being killed and displaced and objects required for human life being destroyed. In Mosul, over 40,000 homes and 16 neighbourhoods were destroyed in the 9-month battle to reclaim the city, with 800,000 of its residents displaced as a result.37Modern War Institute, The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It, (supra n.7) In fact, fighting there occurred in such close quarters to the civilian population that commanders were reporting combat between the kitchen of one apartment to an enemy in the sitting room, with civilians living on the floor above.38Humanitarian Alternatives, Urban warfare: a challenge for humanitarian law and action, Julien Antouly, March 25, 2019

The worst carnage in World War II was conventional bombing of the cities of Tokyo and Dresden in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.39Modern War Institute, The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It, (supra n.7) The international community then established new guidelines under the Geneva Conventions which would protect those not participating in hostilities from the atrocities of war. However, the difficulties of applying cardinal principles of IHL, such as those of distinction, proportionality and precaution are compounded in cities. Moreover, there was also a belief, as exhibited in a quote by a US Army Major about the city of Bến Tre during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, that it was necessary to destroy a town in order to save it.40Ibid.

Additional Protocol I which was drafted after the Vietnam War also endeavoured to save civilians in cities from suffering. An indication of this resolve is seen in Article 51(5)(a) which prohibits “attacks by bombardment by any method or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects”. This has been characterised as custom by the ICRC’s study of Customary International Humanitarian Law.41ICRC, IHL Database, Customary IHL, Rule 13: Area Bombardments Moreover, whilst this rule is not contained in Additional Protocol II, the ICRC has determined it to also be customary in non-international armed conflicts also.42Ibid.

The difficulties of applying IHL in urban warfare however remain. This is as a result of the intermingling between civilians and combatants wherein fighters may fail to distinguish themselves from civilians as well as difficulties in separating military objectives from populations within cities. As a result, it may be dangerous for civilians to go to the market, to schools, places of work for fear of sniper fire or attack.43ICRC, Outcome Report: When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas, (supra n.3) They may also be affected by physical or psychological harm in the face of such danger such as loss of limbs, sight, hearing, burns, or post-traumatic stress disorder.44Ibid. Relatedly, the interconnectedness of urban services also poses a challenge in that damage to infrastructure may affect significant numbers of residents and have reverberating effects on other service systems.45Ibid. For instance, the destruction of a power supply station during combat could result in a knock-on effect on other services such as hospitals, water supply, wastewater collection, schools, public transport etc.46Ibid. This damage is all the more acute given that civilians in cities rely so heavily on public services as there are few alternatives when services are disrupted.47Ibid. Whereas, in rural areas, civilians often have other ways, such as water wells or farms, to deal with the loss of access to a public system.48Ibid.

According to a report by the ICRC, “[t]hese reverberating effects build upon one another, resulting in cumulative impacts that may render an area unlivable and reverse development gains by years if not decades”.49Ibid. Civilians have developed ways of dealing with this threat in cities where there has been protracted armed conflict – by moving schools and hospitals underground for example, or by holding irregular classes in schools.50Ibid.

Moreover, unexploded remnants left on the battlefield where conflicts occur in urban areas threaten the lives of many civilians particularly those involving landmines and cluster munitions.51Ibid. Children are especially at risk as they may mistake these remnants for toys.52Ibid. The use of weapons which have ‘wide-area effects’ in populated areas can be destructive and dangerous for people as well as infrastructure due to the lack of precision.53Ibid. Studies have found that 92 percent of those killed or injured by explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas are civilians, compared to 34 percent when those weapons are used in other areas.54Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, (supra n.1) The ICRC, the UN Secretary-General and other organisations have called on parties to the conflict to refrain from using such weapons which leave explosive remnants or have wide-area effects in populated areas.55ICRC, Outcome Report: When War Moves to Cities: Protection of Civilians in Urban Areas, (supra n.3)

In order to deal with these challenges and comply with IHL, military forces have developed weapons which allow for long-range and precision-strike capabilities so that they can more accurately strike only military targets in cities.56Modern War Institute, The Destructive Age Of Urban Warfare; Or, How To Kill A City And How To Protect It, (supra n.7) However, some argue that despite these technological advancements, insurgents negate this ability by hiding in structurally and population dense urban terrains requiring militaries to assault them by using World War II era technologies and tactics.57Ibid. These can involve “going house to house and, when an enemy is encountered, either attempting to forcibly enter the building or penetrate it with large explosive munitions (some precise, some not), such as artillery and mortars”.58Ibid. Similarly, structures in cities obstruct the signals needed for the technological communications and navigation equipment of a state’s armed forces to work.59Margarita Konaev, “The Future of Urban Warfare in the Age of Megacities”, (supra n.1) For instance, in Iraq, the US military found that electronic reconnaissance and surveillance was ineffective and had to transition to human-centric intelligence systems that relied on Iraqi informants.60Ibid.

As armed conflict returns to cities in a manner which is protracted and has transformed the nature of combat, both military forces and IHL must evolve to meet the changing landscape of warfare from battle in open fields to fighting street-to-street in concrete jungles.

Conclusion

Growing urbanization offers both dystopian and utopian visions of the future. For some, this is an encouraging driver of social mobility and economic development which can alleviate generational poverty and subdue instability.61Evans, Michael. “Future war in cities: Urbanization’s challenge to strategic studies in the 21st century.” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 98, no. 1, April 2016, p. 37-52. For others, however, urban migration is a harbinger of growing anarchy and political decline particularly in the developing world seeing in an era of ‘feral cities’ in which conflict will occur in large sprawling metropolises.62Ibid. Armed conflict in cities does appear to be here to stay and asymmetric adversaries using evolving means and methods of warfare in order to weaken their opponents may lead to key challenges in terms of compliance with IHL for warring parties. It must be ensured that IHL is respected, and that civilians and civilian objects are protected from suffering to the greatest extent possible regardless of the theatre of combat.
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