Sunday, July 23, 2006

It’s Official: There Is Now a Civil War in Iraq

The New York Times
It’s Official: There Is Now a Civil War in Iraq

New Haven

HAS the conflict in Iraq turned into a civil war?

Civil wars are defined as armed conflicts between the government of a sovereign state and domestic political groups mounting effective resistance in relatively continuous fighting that causes high numbers of deaths. This broad definition does not always distinguish civil wars from other forms of political violence, so we often use somewhat arbitrary criteria, like different thresholds of annual deaths, to sort out cases. Depending on the criteria used, there have been about 100 to 150 civil wars since 1945. Iraq is clearly one of them.

Many people might have a narrowly construed idea of what constitutes a civil war based on familiar examples, like the American Civil War. Civil wars, however, actually vary widely. They include bloody yet short-lived coups (Argentina in 1955); organized civilian massacres by the warring parties (Burundi in 1972 and in 1988); guerrilla warfare combined with genocide (as in Cambodia and Guatemala); recurrent bouts of factional conflict in the military (Central African Republic from 1996 to 1997); combinations of criminal and political violence (Chechnya and Algeria in the late 1990’s); self-determination struggles (Sri Lanka since 1983, Bangladesh in 1971 and Sudan from 1983 to 2005, when Khartoum and southern rebels signed an accord); or warfare between large, well-organized armies (China from 1927 to 1949, El Salvador from 1979 to 1992, Mozambique from 1976 to 1992, Croatia in 1991, and Angola from 1975 to 2002). Some unlucky countries have had combinations of all the above — the Congo is the best example.

Sometimes we cannot tell if a civil war has started until long after the fact, when a minor conflict that has gone on for years suddenly spikes into large-scale violence.

Conversely, it is sometimes hard to know when a civil war ends, as wars can turn into long-lasting minor insurgencies, like the conflict between Indonesian security forces and the Free Papua Movement.

What’s more, civil wars are sometimes limited to peripheral areas (as in Uganda’s war against the Lord’s Resistance Army) or they can engulf the whole country, as in Greece (1944 to 1949) or Bosnia (1992 to 1995). In some countries — like Chad, Colombia and Myanmar, which have been in and out of civil war for more than 40 years — civil war becomes a fact of life rather than an anomaly.

The question of whether a country has fallen into civil war is often deliberately muddied for political reasons. States avoid using the term to play down the level of opposition to them. Thus, for example, the Kenyan “shifta” war of the 1960’s against secessionist Somalis in the Northern Frontier District may have technically been a small civil war, but in the historiography of the country and in the minds of many Kenyans, it was just banditry (“shifta” means bandit) or a border conflict with Somalia.

But if the term “civil war” seeks to convey the condition of a divided society engaged in destructive armed conflict, then Iraq sadly fits the bill. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together have managed to create 40 or so political parties and dozens of militias in two years of sovereign rule.

The insurgency started while Iraq was under foreign occupation, but it intensified since the handoff of sovereignty. The insurgents have been fighting continuously, violence affects all sides and there have been more than 30,000 civilian and military deaths, dwarfing the median number of 18,000 deaths for all civil wars since 1945.

In addition, sectarian violence is uprooting ever larger numbers of Iraqis. On Thursday, the Iraqi government reported that in the previous week alone, more than 1,000 families had left integrated areas for Shiite or Sunni strongholds.

Fighting a civil war is the way that some societies build a state, and it is hard to imagine how there could have been a smooth transition from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Still, the United States has clearly helped to create the conditions for Iraq’s descent into civil war.

Two failures are worth noting. First, a large literature on contentious politics has shown that violent opposition groups gain legitimacy and public support when the state uses indiscriminate violence or abuses civilians. This is precisely what has happened in Iraq, with recent reports of civilian abuses by the coalition.

Second, civil war studies have shown that insurgencies grow into large wars when insurgents receive external assistance. The American-led coalition simply has not had the manpower to quarantine those Iraqis who have reportedly received assistance from neighboring countries and international terrorist entities.

What can be done? History shows that the one way to build peace after a civil war is through a decisive victory — something that’s easier said than done. Negotiated settlements can also produce a lasting peace, but durable settlements like those in Cambodia, Mozambique and El Salvador usually come after long wars (10 years on average). And the United Nations can help, but only after an agreement has been reached. The United Nations cannot win wars, but it can shore up the foundation for a peace.

More than a third of civil wars restart within five years and Iraq has many risk factors: a dependence on oil, a population polarized along religious lines, meddlesome neighbors, no democratic traditions and a long history of violent conflict.

But there is also good news. Iraq is better off than many countries in the midst of a civil war: its income is relatively high, it has an educated populace and it can count on abundant foreign assistance if fighting ends.

Whether these factors will help to bring an end to the conflict in Iraq is an open question. What is no longer an open question, however, is the nature of the conflict. It is a civil war, not an insurgency.

Nicholas Sambanis, an associate professor of political science at Yale, is the co-author of “Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations.”