The Belmont Club has a very good piece on why the claims of an Iraqi civil war don’t match the reality on the ground. There’s little doubt that Iraq is being hit with major bouts of sectarian violence, but as Wretchard notes, the claims that the “insurgency” is winning in Iraq have become suspiciously rare. As he notes:
Politically what’s interesting is how the narrative has changed. Nobody is talking about the Sunni insurgency succeeding any more. Even the press hardly makes the claim of an insurgency on the brink of success. As late as November 2005, the Daily Kos was boasting: “The occupation is exacerbating terrorism in the country. America is losing, the insurgency is winning. Maybe we should say, ‘has won.'” But by the December 2005 elections this view could no longer be held by anyone with the slightest regard for the facts.
The reality is that the much-vaunted “insurgency” was a minority of a minority lashing out, and not a coherent political movement. Some were ex-Ba’athists wanting to return to the top of Iraqi society. Some were Islamist jihadis wanting to form an Sunni Islamic state in Iraq. A good fraction were criminals who just wanted to get paid for blowing things up. There wasn’t a coherent ideology leading the “insurgency” as much as a collection of aggravated Sunni groups wanting to gain power.
The same is true with the prospect of a “civil war” in Iraq. As a Belmont commenter notes, a civil war exists when five conditions are met:
- the contestants must control territory,
- have a functioning government,
- enjoy some foreign recognition,
- have identifiable regular armed forces, and
- engage in major military operations.
None of those are true in Iraq today – and haven’t been for some time. Iraq is in danger of becoming a failed state, but that’s markedly different from civil war. So long as there’s a functioning police and military infrastructure, the chances of Iraq becoming a failed state is also slim. As terrible as the loss of life in Iraq is, 60-70 deaths per day due to violence doesn’t meet the historical thresholds for a civil war. There is no force that creates a credible challenge to the authority of the Iraqi government – al-Zarqawi’s Islamic state exists only in his mind, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been told to back down, and the other various groups don’t have nearly enough power to mount a credible opposition.
The reality of the situation in Iraq is not that there’s a civil war – it’s that Iraq has a major gang problem. Instead of a coherent and violent political opposition, you have thousands of two-bit thugs roaming the streets with guns and RPGs, kidnapping foreigners from cash, causing terror, and contracting out with terror groups for money. The only way to fix that problem is not with a political solution, but with getting Iraq’s civil infrastructure back on track – putting more police on the ground and giving them the ability to put the thugs behind bars.
The single biggest point of progress in Iraq is that the democratic process has been widely accepted as the sole legitimate means of social change. Even a firebrand revolutionary like Moqtada al-Sadr has been forced to accept the legitimacy of the political process. Ayatollah al-Sistani is firmly behind the idea of Iraq being a democratic state – a democratic state ruled under Islamic principles, but a democratic state never the less. Establishing democratic legitimacy is the first and largest hurtle towards establishing a stable democracy.
Iraq is far from stable. There is a great deal of work to be done. It will take decades for Iraq to develop the kind of civil society necessary for a truly healthy democratic culture. In the interim, there will be frequent and sometimes critical setbacks that will test the ability of Iraq to remain a democratic state.
At the same time, the usual preachers of gloom and doom keep changing their tune – first that we’d never defeat Saddam, then that we’d ignite a region-wide war and the war would send streams of refugees across the region. Then we heard that the CPA would fail and Iraq would never have free elections. Next we heard that the insurgency would defeat us, now it’s civil war. As Iraq progresses, the metrics for failure keep changing. Despite the most fervent wishes of some for Iraq to go down in flames, even the prevarication of attacking one of the holiest sites in Shi’ite Islam did not set off the kind of struggle that al-Zarqawi was hoping for.
Of all Iraq’s myriad problems, civil war isn’t one of them – and unless the situation in Iraq takes a turn for the worse in a more dramatic fashion that it has in the last three years, the chances of that happening are quite slim.