View Full Version : The history of the concept of the 'conflict curve'

10-25-2010, 11:27 AM
Does anybody here know the origins of the 'conflict curve' concept (or the stages of a conflict)? I've been struck for some time now by the (mostly implicit) power this concept has acquired in our thinking about wars and conflicts. In my own career, I started observing the use of the more general concept probably sometime in mid- to late-90s. This then at some point transformed into the '4 phases' etc.

But does anybody know who first drew the 'hump' with the stages on the x-, and the level of violence on the y-axis?


10-25-2010, 12:31 PM
I assume you mean the concept which ends with occupation, not Mao's stages of a people's war?

I encountered it for the first time around 2004 and don't remember having seen older sources pointing at it either.

M-A Lagrange
10-25-2010, 01:23 PM
The best I have is a 2005 doc:
But that might be another model because I have seen the conflict curve or conflict lifetime model before 2005.

10-25-2010, 06:27 PM
Hey sdspieg,

It might help if you specified the "conflict curve", since there are more than one.

E.g., the math-oriented power series conflict curves, mentioned by Surferbeetle, Applied math, one step at a time... (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showpost.php?p=89643&postcount=77), with link to Mathematics of War (http://mathematicsofwar.com/). In the civilian context, that construct goes back to the 1960s, e.g., Some Evidence in Support of a Power Theory of Conflict (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8543.1970.tb00573.x/abstract).

or, e.g., as in the US Institute of Peace, Certificate Course in Conflict Analysis (http://www.usip.org/education-training/courses/certificate-course-in-conflict-analysis), which includes Lund's The Curve of Conflict (http://origin.usip.org/training/online/analysis/2_0_2.php) (from his book, Preventing Violent Conflicts: A Strategy for Preventive Diplomacy (http://bookstore.usip.org/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=51314)).



Bob's World
10-25-2010, 08:58 PM
There is a pretty good insurgency model out there as well...:)

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_eVIUev8bssM/S-7PdaO1W7I/AAAAAAAAAB4/wG9bIG4tjhM/s400/jonesclipout.jpg&imgrefurl=http://isafcoin.blogspot.com/2010/05/jones-insurgency-model_15.html&usg=__qqF22lC324eKwbpCNtSh_Rvk_FQ=&h=243&w=400&sz=34&hl=en&start=0&zoom=1&tbnid=JldRomsYaq13QM:&tbnh=127&tbnw=209&prev=/images%3Fq%3DJones%2Binsurgency%2Bmodel%26um%3D1%2 6hl%3Den%26safe%3Doff%26sa%3DN%26rlz%3D1G1GGLQ_ENU S392%26biw%3D1090%26bih%3D450%26tbs%3Disch:1%26prm d%3Div&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=340&vpy=95&dur=3182&hovh=175&hovw=288&tx=40&ty=43&ei=K-_FTMbmCMP6lweQ9pQD&oei=K-_FTMbmCMP6lweQ9pQD&esq=1&page=1&ndsp=9&ved=1t:429,r:1,s:0

10-25-2010, 10:42 PM
I apologize - I should have been more precise. The 'hump' I refer to is the one which usually has time on the x-axis (before the conflict, during, after the conflict), and either intensity, or utilization of force, or something of that sort on the y-axis.
Attached are two examples of some slides I used in the period 2000-2002 - based on work we did at RAND Europe for some European MoDs. One was used to illustrate choices that countries could make about where in the 'conflict hump' they wanted to contribute forces (e.g. a bit throughout the hump. or only in the 'heavy lifting' stages, or just in the 'mopping up' stage, etc. The other was used to illustrate the presumed benefits of network-centrism: that countries would be able to 'shift' the hump to the left (intervening more quickly), and to also make it 'shorter' (taking over control more quickly and so being able to draw down more quickly). Hans Binnendijk and Stu Johnosn also used it to illustrate what they called the 'stabilization and reconstruction gap' (see http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/stab_rec_ops.pdf - pp. 607). And since then, the idea has been used for the different phases of a conflict.

Hope this provides some more clarity about the 'conflict curve' concept that I'm now trying to retrace the pedigree of. I will now look into some of your suggestions - for which already my thanks.


10-26-2010, 01:08 AM
sdspieg -

Your RAND charts are interesting. Going back to the French practitioners of the late 50s and earlier 60s (say through Jack McCuen's The Art of Counter-revolutionary War (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=10908)), the ideal has been expressed (though not often realized) of avoiding or at least reducing the "conflict hump" by elevating the less violent "things to be done".

As in this add to your first chart:


As Bob Jones shamelessly points out (:):D), he is involved in this same hunt.



Steve the Planner
10-26-2010, 04:03 AM
This diagram shows degrade as an escalation to the peak activity of control, with a fall-of to defeat, then setting up permanent bases.

So far, so good.

Looks like the bulk of the conflict bubble comes after degrade, with much more involved in control, and, afterwards, very little associated with defeat.

Degrade: Shock and Awe (about 72 hours). No heavy lifting, no troops, no casualties.

Control: About five years. Massive effort, massive troop build up, loss of life/limb, billions spent.

Defeat: About a week. (Sign some papers? How do you know if you have "won?").

Permanent bases. (Forever land). Why do you need permanent bases if the enemy has been defeated?

These little diagrams are so seductive and meaningless.

Am I missing something?


10-26-2010, 04:58 AM
Am I missing something?

Every conflict is different. Draw a curve to illustrate WW2, or Korea, or Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan... or the continuing FID efforts in Colombia or the Philippines, or any other conflict you care to name. Some may be superficially similar, others will be radically different.

I honestly don't see the point. If we want to know where we are in any given conflict, we need to look at the specific events and specific context of that conflict, not at an abstract curve.

Bob's World
10-26-2010, 11:49 AM
Also as Bob Jones points out, I really cannot find any value in the family of bell curve products.

My own efforts (sadly limited by my lack or artistic or PowerPoint skills) are not an effort of laying out a path from A to Z that a conflict follows, but rather to describe the zone of populace/governance dynamics that the conditions of insurgency grow and shrink within; and the responses to such conditions surge and ebb within as well.

Conflict is not a river that flows unstoppable from the mountains to the sea; but rather a tide that is constantly going in and out within a fairly definable zone. I think too many try to make conflict like a river, and certainly with insurgency, that is simply not the case.

The counterinsurgent can move from Shape to Clear to Hold to Build to Transition and declare "victory"; but if for all his efforts to defeat the symptoms of insurgency, the conditions of insurgency are largely untouched, he has merely "turned the tide" for some period of time. Like the Tide, a poorly governed populace will be back. Liberty is an inexorable force, but it is one the rambles back and forth, always sought, rarely achieved, and harder yet to sustain.

At the end of the day, I don't know the answer, but I do think about the question a great deal.

10-26-2010, 05:25 PM

Thanks. Of course, this is merely what we call a 'stylized' depiction of conflict. And of course, reality is usually much more messy, especially when you're in it :). Then it resembles more like successive waves. But when you look back after a conflict is over, these stages are usually there - even if the actual hump looks more raggedy than here.

But even though the experiences of Iraq/Afghanistan have given us a SOMEWHAT different perspective on these issues, I still wouldn't call this curve entirely pointless. For forward defense (read: capability) planning (and that's the line of work I mostly dabble in) purposes, the capabilities that are required in these various stages DO differ. NATO nations (especially the smaller ones, and let's not forget that they are the majority within NATO!) DO have choices to make here. If you want to be present in the 'degrade (aka early entry) and control' stages, that requires a lot of expensive capabilities (witness the infamous anti-access problem) that you do NOT have to make if you just want to be in the stabilization stage. And let's not fool ourselves - it's not because the 'early' stage went successfully in recent conflicts from the Balkans onwards, that that will always be the case. I remember vividly the models we used at RAND for the Balkan wars, and what a HUGE difference Russian S-300s (or ANY effective form of air defense) would have made.

But anyway, you've all given me SOME references to look at. It STILL seems to me that this conflict curve - with both its positive AND indeed deceptive features - still dominates much of our thinking ("pre-conflict", "post-conflict"). The reason I'm trying to find out where this comes from is actually a totally different one - we're doing some work on security 'resilience'. The idea that rather than US (broadly speaking the 'West') charging in kinetically into the hump (and investing in THOSE kinds of capabilities), investing in 'forward resilience' may give us much more (security) 'bang' for our buck. By which I mean - stimulating LOCAL resilience, so that local/regional communities can deal with local violence. That means exploring a different 'balance of investment' between 'conflict hump'-capabilities and 'resilience'-capabilities. So security sector investments in 'responsible' countries (think the African Union) vs F35s.

Anyways, I'll keep delving into this. But again - if anybody has any reference to this conflict-hump from BEFORE Michael Lund, I'd be most grateful


Bob's World
10-27-2010, 10:52 AM
I also think to call these "conflict curves" is a misnomer. What the bell curve approaches attempt to map out is "response to conflict," which is a very different thing, and is indeed helpful for the purpose described by Stephan of determining when in a given response varioius capabilities are most likely to be needed/helpful.

Conflict curves are also "threat-based," in that they presume success in the defeat of some threat and map out the expected violence expected, force required to defeat the threat.

Change the name and relegate their use to managing force provider issues and I have no problem with them.

In contrast, what I try to do is understand and describe the nature of the problem itself. Once one understands the problem they can then assess their National interests, overall scheme of foreign policy, current political situation, etc and then tailor a response that is most likely to produce the desired effects within those ever present, yet ever changing, constraints. Sometimes the problem is the threat, sometimes there is threat but no interests, often the problem is primarily in the government and how they govern.

I've made some mental refinements on my model (that only looks at insurgency, not all types of conflicts) to more clearly show the growth of conditions of insurgency in response to poor governance, and the way it can manifest in either non-violent or violent responses by the popualce. I may change the N/S axis from "violence" to "conditions of insurgency"; but I have to play with how to best depict the dynamic I see at work.

I don't see how these "conflict curves" help senior leaders make strategic decisions, so I've never found much utility in them for my work. As a corallary to that, I think they narrowly constrict thinking in ways that suggest a single answer for all problems and I would caution any leader for using for anything other than as a loose guide for planning force provider issues.

10-27-2010, 03:58 PM
Like any other visual aids, these curves are (should be) discussion guides. E.g., this second one illustrates altering the initial conditions to shift and reshape the more violent part of the curve.


The point of my post was that an incumbant government faced with an insurgency (or possible insurgency) should firstly think of its strategic base areas and change what can be changed. Thus, first look to concepts of dissuade, deter and stabilize as necessary first steps (much more of the political struggle).

My only problem with these and other charts (incl. mine) is that they appear to be linear. In reality we deal with multiple dimensions.