The meaning of civil war, and political and military developments in Iraq
With the advent of the three year ‘anniversary’ of the liberation of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the common headline has switched from an indomitable insurgency to impending civil war, if not an existing civil war. Richard Hernandez looks at the issue in detail, and postulates “the shift of meme from the “insurgency” to a “civil war” is a backhanded way of admitting the military defeat of the insurgency without abandoning the characterization of Iraq is an American fiasco.” We believe there is merit to this argument.
While the term ‘civil war’ is thrown around with little thought of the meaning it communicates, there has been little effort to define exactly what a civil war is. The definition supplied by Wikipedia highlights the reasons for some of the confusion in the usage of the term, as there are two schools of thought on this subject, and the definition is quite vague:
A civil war is a war in which parties within the same country or empire struggle for national control of state power. As in any war, the conflict may be over other matters such as religion, ethnicity, or distribution of wealth. Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criteria for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not). In simple terms, a Civil War is a war in which a country fights another part of itself.
The United States Committee for a Free Lebanon provides the Complete List of Terrorist and Insurgency Groups Worldwide. Based on this list, and the latter definition from Wikipedia (prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not)), Spain, France, Greece, the United States, India and a host of nations throughout the world are in a ‘civil war’. India alone has twenty-nine insurgent groups, many of which are actively carrying out violent campaigns within its borders. Yet there is little talk of civil war in India. The violence in India takes thousands of lives each year, yet is characterized as sectarian, insurgency or terrorism related.
We argue the definition of civil war is far too broad, as armed conflict within a state is not the sole indicator of civil war. Key indicators of a civil war would include the breakdown of the political process and an unwillingness of the opposing parties to negotiate, the factionalization of the military and security institutions, and open warfare between the various parties. It is for these reasons we provided the indicators of a civil war in Iraq after the destruction of the dome of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
So far, we have seen little indications of these signs coming to pass. Yes, the political process is slow and painful, and counterproductive to quelling the violence, but there is progress. Yes, there is an insurgency in Iraq, but it is being fought by the Iraqi government alongside with the Coalition forces. Yes, there is sectarian violence, but this violence is not sanctioned by the government of Iraq, or the political or religious leaders. Yes, there are armed militias and rogue elements within the security services, but the majority of the Iraqi politicians recognize the threat they pose and are working to diminish the power of militias.
The Iraqi Security Forces continue to take on more of the security responsibility. And in an encouraging sign of political progress, the Iraqi politicians have agreed on the creation of a Security Council designed to “give each of the country’s main political factions a voice in making security and economic policies for a new government…” and is “expected to set policies governing the army and police, the counter-insurgency campaign in Sunni Muslim Arab areas and the disarmament of Shiite Muslim militias accused of sectarian killings.”
Also, there is talk that SCIRI may break with the United Iraqi Alliance and join with Kurdish, secular Shiite and Sunni parties to nominate Abdel Mahdi as prime minister. This would override the UIA’s appointment of Jaafari, and reduce the influence of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Madhi Army militia is thought to be behind much of the Shiite-led sectarian violence. While this has not been confirmed, it certainly demonstrates the various parties are willing to discuss options, despite political or sectarian differences.
The threat of a civil war in Iraq is quite real, particularly if the political process breaks down. Iraq may be a step or two from a civil war, but it is not there yet.
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