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Globalization and Increased Urban Warfare

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Globalization is defined as a ‘multiplicity of linkages and interconnections that transcend the nation states (and by implication the societies) which make up the modern system.’1Reich, Simon. What Is Globalization? Four Possible Answers. 1998. This means that actions taking place in one part of the world significantly impact individuals living in the other. While advancement through globalization has made human life easier, there are also negative consequences which contribute to the prevalence of urban warfare. Urban warfare most simply means armed combat in towns and cities which put civilians at risk. It is different from fighting in jungles or forests which are known as ‘neutral’ places, as cities provide strategic advantage to insurgents due to their familiarity with landmarks, which in turn allows them to choose suitable hideouts.2Evans, Michael. “Future War in Cities: Urbanization’s Challenge to Strategic Studies in the 21st Century.” International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 98, no. 901, 2016, pp. 37–51., Globalization causes greater urbanization and technological advancement, which, in conflict zones, can be a recipe for unrest.


Urbanization refers to an increase in the number of people living in urban areas which can result in both the growth and development of these places. 3 Daily, Science. “Urbanization.” ScienceDaily, 2017, Globalization and urbanization are directly linked as the development of cities requires the construction of infrastructure which improves connectivity in all domains. This not only makes cities attractive for people from rural areas, but also for terrorist groups who want to benefit from the facilities that are not available to them in jungles and caves. The possibility of controlling political, economic, socio-cultural, and commercial activity makes cities potential power centers to these groups as new-age war requires control over all these resources. 4Konaev, Margarita, and John Spencer. “The Era of Urban Warfare Is Already Here – Foreign Policy Research Institute.”, 21 Mar. 2018,

Armies around the world seek swift victories and decisive action, whereas non-state actors look for protracted war and prefer to hide within civilian populations to camouflage themselves.5Report, CRS. “Military Aviation: Issues and Options for Combating Terrorism and Counterinsurgency.”, 2006, Similarly, infrastructural development, with a plethora of high rise and closely built structures with dense settlements, gives non-state actors enough space to hide and continue their attacks. Foreign or State armed forces are at a disadvantage as they are often not as familiar with the secret passages or alleyways, nor can they use powerful weapons in their arsenal due to the increased probability of killing innocents, thus non-state actors have a lot of room for maneuver. While close quarter battles do take place, the overall frustration of not removing the non-state groups can quickly lead to the use of aerial bombing, the success of which will be discussed later.

Apart from strategic home-ground advantage, cities also provide a large pool of potential recruits to insurgents. With a rise in population, the burden on resources also increases which decreases the functionality of state institutions, takes the focus away from human development, causes unemployment and leads to human rights violations.6Zurich. “The Risks of Rapid Urbanization in Developing Countries.”, a result of this, development becomes unequal, and people start to become disillusioned with the government. A rise in grievances makes cities more prone to instability and internal conflict, and means that residents, especially those who are young, are more likely to become violent.7Nairobi, The New Humanitarian. “Youth at Risk: The Link between Youth Violence and Urbanisation.” The New Humanitarian, 22 Apr. 2016, The aggrieved population is more easily manipulated and recruited to the ranks of non-state armed groups, looking to rebel against the state. 8Weintraub, Michael. “Scattered Cities: Why Low Urban Concentration Makes Civil War a (Very) Remote Possibility in the US.” Political Violence at a Glance, 14 Sept. 2020,


Increased interconnectivity through globalization means that not only are countries able to interact with one another, but non-state actors are also equally capable of seeping through borders, both physically and virtually. All of this happens due to an increase in technological advancement, which is generally considered a major benefit of globalization.

Increased interaction among states means that countries are able to keep a check on one another and see if one country’s power is superseding another’s which gives rise to insecurity between states. The hegemonic ambitions of strong countries, along with feelings of insecurity, lead to greater armed conflict between states. Globalization has also enabled countries to share military technology with one another and prolong urban conflicts. Syria is one such instance. In order to support the Syrian regime, Russia bought ‘Forpost’ drones from Israel and stalked the regime’s opponents, not just enabling Assad to continue to stay in power, but also deciding which places to bomb and when. Along with Russia, the US, Turkey, and Iran also intervened in the internal affairs of the country, taking sides as per their national interests; prolonging the civil war.9Hilsman, Patrick. “How Putin Uses Israeli Drones to Bomb Civilians in Syria.” Haaretz, 9 May 2021,

Moreover, a rise in the influence of non-state actors beyond the virtual and physical borders of one state can absorb multiple countries into a conflict. Technological advancement has given internet and media access to insurgents due to which they have the ability to spread their message across the globe and take transnational actions. From sending out pre-recorded video messages, to live telecasting executions, non-state armed groups make the most out of the internet. They spread their network by making websites, publishing literature aimed at radicalization, making groups for clandestine recruitment, holding virtual training camps, with the ability to keep all these activities password-protected.10 UNODC. “The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes.”,

States and non-state groups are increasingly turning to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) which locate and bomb suspects as a cost saving mechanism which obviates the need for boots on the ground. This is often used in situations where non-state actors are operating on foreign soil and boots on the ground can further complicate matters. However, despite their supposed precision, ‘drone strikes are only as accurate as the intelligence they are based on’.11Schiavenza, Matt. “Drones Are Not as Precise as Their Proponents Claim.” The Atlantic, 24 Apr. 2015, This means that in cases of failed intelligence, an attack in the middle of an urban settlement leads to large scale destruction and collateral damage. The examples of this have been seen in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East – countries that have had to deal with continuous drone strikes for years due to foreign attempts to hit urban hideouts of non-state groups. The most recent drone strike carried out by the US in Afghanistan in an attempt to hit an ISIS target, that too with prior intelligence, turned out to be a ‘tragic mistake’ as it killed ten civilians, including seven children and an aid worker.12Aikins, Matthieu, et al. “Times Investigation: In U.S. Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb.” The New York Times, 10 Sept. 2021,

What happens when the two are combined?

The threats posed by insurgents in urban settlements, or even confrontation with conventional military forces of another country, along with the advancement in technology and weapons possessed by countries, make urban warfare a more regular occurrence as opposed to a distant thought. Unfortunately, the success of these wars cannot be determined objectively. Some suggest that saving cities from insurgents is the ultimate goal, while others argue that the collateral damage renders it too costly. The former school of thought believes that cities must be destroyed to be saved. This belief has led to events like the destruction of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War, killing 1000 civilians and destroying 85 percent of the city, Mosul during the Iraq War, displacing more than 800,000 civilians and many more such instances.13Spencer, John. “Why Militaries Must Destroy Cities to Save Them.” Modern War Institute, 8 Nov. 2018, In all these cases, despite the large-scale violence and destruction, the cities were indeed saved and rehabilitated, albeit with a cost of civilian lives as well as hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, the pertinent question here is whether ‘saving’ a city by intervention lies within the parameters of international law or not. While the principle of military necessity may be met, the ability to comply with the principles of proportionality and distinction is much harder in urban environments. With aerial bombing, it becomes very difficult to keep the response proportionate. Drone strikes have been put forward as a better alternative to plain aerial bombing, however, these strikes also leave room for both intelligence failure and human error. Iraq alone has had more than 13000 civilian deaths due to drone strikes since 2014.14Hamourtziadou, Lily. “Five Myths about Drone Warfare Busted.” The Conversation, 16 Sept. 2021, So is there a way to minimize losses in urban warfare?

Firstly, greater compliance with the policies designed by ICRC must be ensured. Since the last decade, ICRC has been calling on states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide impact in populated areas.15ICRC. “ICRC Q&A on the Issue of Explosive Weapons in populated Areas.” International Review, Even if they are to be used, first, it must be ensured that sufficient steps have been taken to limit their spread, and any consequent effect on civilians. Secondly, the ICRC has been working on starting a diplomatic process to sign a declaration between countries, addressing the harm caused by urban conflicts.16ICRC. “Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Opening Remarks by Peter Maurer at the 33rd International Conference Side Event.”, 11 Dec. 2019,

However, it must be remembered that many such nonproliferation agreements and promises have been made in the past to make the world a better place, with little to no enforcement. Despite these conventions, 31 countries around the world possess ballistic missiles with the ability to target anything up to over 5500 kilometres away.17Davenport, Kelsey. “Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories | Arms Control Association.”, Dec. 2017, Moreover, militaries must train specifically for urban warfare, keeping in mind the technicalities and challenges that make them different from open field operations. This training must be done in an environment that simulates the pressures of fighting among civilians as closely as possible.18Gisel, Laurent, et al. “Urban Warfare: An Age-Old Problem in Need of New Solutions.” Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog, 27 Apr. 2021,, certain Rules of Engagement (ROE) must be conformed to, such as ensuring significant pauses in the action for humanitarian aid to reach the civilians, or employing ‘focused lethality munitions’ that minimize collateral damage as much as possible, along with banning the use of explosives in densely populated areas, as well as restricting strikes that might harm services like electricity or water supply.19Kilcullen, David. “Future Urban Conflict, Technology, and the Protection of Civilians” Stimson Center, 10 June 2021,


With urban conflicts becoming ‘the new normal’, there is little that could be done to completely eliminate them. However, a focus on the modification of war with respect and consideration for non-combatants could improve the situation. Constant collaboration between countries, along with continuous checks by international organizations and dedicated efforts towards implementing IHL in letter and spirit, could limit civilian harm and minimize suffering in urban warfare.

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Ifrah Maskan
Ifrah Maskan is a Political Science and Economics graduate, currently working as a Research Associate at Nur Markaz. Her research focuses on national security, and she aims to pursue a Master's in Security and Strategic Studies.