Defining Civil War

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.

8 thoughts on “Defining Civil War

  1. It would have been a hoot to have guys like you around back in 1862. “We’re not in a civil war! It’s a ‘gang problem’!”

  2. Except George Will is also wrong. The Spanish Civil War met all of the five criteria, the situation in Iraq meets none. He cites Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces as an example, while ignoring the fact that al-Sadr himself has told his forces to stand down – and the last time al-Sadr tried an serious moves the rest of the Iraqi Shi’ites started gunning them down in the streets.

    And again, he even states “…a U.S. withdrawal would leave chaos that might lead to radical Islamists acquiring what they most want — Saudi oil fields and Pakistani nuclear weapons. So America, he thinks, needs a plan to reduce fatalities to two or three a week, then two or three a month.”

    Which is exactly the plan. US casualties are down as we’re giving the Iraqis more and more responsibility. The areas of lawlessness are getting smaller, not larger.

    If there was a single unified insurgency under a single leader with a common goal that could hold territory, we’d be in deep crap. But there isn’t. Zarqawi is hated by Iraqis as a foreign butcher. Al-Sadr is a two-bit thug with delusions of grandeur who was once forced to back down by Ayatollah Sistani and the other Iraqi people who saw him as the Iranian puppet he is. There is no leader to the insurgency, no unity, and no real political agenda. It’s all about thuggery and violence.

    The end goal is the same: have an Iraqi military and police force that can fight the violence. That is beginning to happen, and at a reasonably efficient pace given the magnitude of the problem. Will doesn’t support the Democratic plan of cutting and running from Iraq, and no serious strategist does – regardless of how dire they think the situation is at this time.

  3. so if it does not meet all five criteria it is somehow less of problem?
    “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 gang/sectarian problem is fueled by police, so more of the same won’t help the problem….until or unless they actually can and want to put their own clan members in jail. not likely. it is turning into a warlord state.

    you mentioned al-Sadr accepting the political process while skipping over how he was at one time “being sought” by the MNF-I. democracy has legitimized al-Sadr (and the miltias he controls don’t hurt either.)

    i accept the pronounciation of this conflict as less than a civil war, but changing terminology alone does little to help out a nasty situation.

  4. Most of the wars around the world today that we call civil wars don’t fit this criteria. Sri Lanka? Liberia? Sierra Leone? It’s a semantic definition that can be argued over by different people. The definition you provided isn’t “the” definition, and I imagine 99.9% of Americans have their own definition that is quite different from that one.

    I appreciate, however, your acknowledgment that bringing peace and stability to Iraq will take decades. Why in the world, then does the Bush Administration, and their loudest supporters, not simply say this? In fact, why do they say the exact opposite (that we’re 6-12 months away from success) all the time? What angers me the most is the game they play of pretending that success is right around the corner. Success is NOT right around the corner. The argument that Iraq is not in a state of “civil war” is, to almost anyone using common-sense logic, an argument to the effect that Iraq is almost at peace. Which is a lie.

  5. How about this: let’s agree to not call it a civil war, but let’s also agree that any politician who supports the occupation but doesn’t loudly say that America will be in Iraq for a decade is a dirty liar. How’s that?

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