What Are Frozen Wars and Forever Wars?

Many conflicts around the globe fit these definitions. An international security expert explains their differences, their duration, and potential ends

By Taylor McNeil, featuring Richard Shultz, Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School.

Wars have been fought throughout human history, and at any given moment multiple conflicts may have been unfolding around the globe. But there are different types of wars, and understanding how they differ is helpful in assessing the prospects for their resolution, says Richard Shultz, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies and director of the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Shultz about two particular types of wars—the so-called forever wars and frozen wars, their differences, and what those differences suggest about their duration and potential ends. 

What are frozen wars?

A frozen war is one with ongoing, low-level conflict. There is fighting, but there’s no major combat. There may be some little gains here and there, but essentially it just continues for quite a long time. 

Ukraine was seen as a frozen conflict after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. The Russians took over Crimea, and then they also fostered separatist groups in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. The conflict continued with sporadic fighting, which was in Putin’s interest because it stopped any idea of Ukraine entering NATO, which was probably his intention.

With the Russian invasion in February 2022, it became an active war, a major conventional war.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which began in 1988, was considered a frozen conflict. More recently the Azeris were able to acquire capabilities that gave them a major advantage and they defeated the Armenians in September, although the conflict had gone on for decades.

And there is a type of frozen conflict in Georgia, as Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia after Russian intervention there in the early 1990s. Russia recognizes them as independent entities and maintains their independence by keeping forces deployed there. It’s another kind of frozen conflict. The Georgian government doesn’t recognize them as independent entities—only Russia and four other countries recognize them.

Where do you see the war in Ukraine going?

It’s unclear. NATO is supporting Ukraine’s policy of victory, but Ukraine is having a hard time now. Their current offensive suggests that this war could go on for quite a while. Some analysts think that it is going to be characterized by the dominance of defense over offense. There’s some indication of that, given that the Ukrainian offensive has run into a defense-in-depth strategy on the part of the Russians. 

In the case of the earlier frozen war, it was kind of the same thing. It means that the Ukrainians are going to have a hard time pushing the Russians out of the areas that they control, essentially from Crimea up into the Donbas. 

And at the same time, the Russians aren’t getting what they really want, which is to take over the whole country. So it’s a stalemate for now.

What are forever wars?

The term is an outgrowth of the Obama years—Afghanistan and Iraq were seen as forever wars in the U.S. Forever wars are not generally with a country, but with a non-state actor that’s fighting for an idea and tends to be highly ideological. That affects both their commitment and their viciousness.

In Iraq, we were fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq, AQI as it was called. The U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, which was directed by General Stanley McChrystal, really degraded AQI. You can measure this by how many operations the military conducted. At their height, they were carrying out 1,500 a month. It fell enormously by around 2009, to where they were carrying out maybe a hundred actions a month.

When President Obama got out of the forever war in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq got back up off the ground, rebuilt itself, rebranded itself, and eventually got to calling itself ISIS. Obama thought he was getting out of a forever war, but he got dragged back into the war in Syria against ISIS, in which we fought a major military campaign called Enduring Inherent Resolve. In that campaign, which ran from about mid to late 2014 to 2017, we carried out 24,000 airstrikes to defeat the Islamic State.

Afghanistan was the other forever war, against the Taliban, starting in 2001 and lasting until 2021. Some of these forever wars can quickly become intense, and then fade back to low-level fighting. A good example was Afghanistan. One reason was that there was a fighting season of sorts there. Afghanistan has a harsh winter and poor transportation, leaving many parts of the country snowbound until spring. So April to October was for fighting, plus there was an economic factor. The fighting season ended in October because that is when opium harvesting begins.

If we think about al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, they are pretty brutal in terms of how they conduct warfare. They really have little attention to the laws of war that call for the use of discriminant force and non-targeting of civilians. ISIS mowed down civilians who didn’t fit into their ideological framework. And al-Qaeda in Iraq did the same.

What about the war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988?

I think that was a variation of a forever war. It was basically trench warfare, very locked-in, set positions. Little nudge here, little nudge there, keep on killing, keep on fighting. Nothing seems to move. Nothing seems to happen. 

The Iranians tried to fight on the offensive, the Iraqis essentially fought on the defensive. The Iranians fought World War I style, and they paid a terrible price. And the war ended when both sides were exhausted. It didn’t end with one side winning and one side losing.

But the term forever war tends to be applied more to state vs. non-state actor wars. You could say that Israel has been in a forever war with Hamas and earlier the PLO, and that the current war with Hamas is an extension of that forever war. If you’re a state fighting a forever war, you may end up controlling the ability of the non-state group to conduct operations, but you don’t deal with the sources of the conflict.

(This post is republished from Tufts Now.)

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