Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Definition of Civil War

Juan Cole helpfully provides us with the social scientists' definition of a civil war:
Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain. (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)
By that definition, Iraq has been in a civil war for a long time. Cole notes
The death toll from guerrilla activity and government ripostes, extrapolating from Allawi's estimate of 50 fatalities a day, is on the order of 18,000 a year, well above the 1,000 minimum suggested by Singer and his colleagues. There are no good estimates of the numbers or percentages of guerrillas killed vs. new Iraqi security forces, but if the police are included in the latter, anecdotal evidence suggests that the guerrillas inflict on government forces far more than 5 percent of the casualties they themselves sustain.
The odd thing, as I've heard other people note, is that not only is Iraq obviously in a civil war, but the administration essentially said as much when it began to describe the US mission there as backing a democratic government against a terrorist insurgency. An insurgency is, by definition, a civil war. So why the sudden fear from the right of admitting that this is a civil war? Why do people think that admitting that there is a civil war amounts to admitting defeat?

When we admit that there is a civil war, we aren’t saying anything about the number of deaths or degree of conflict. If Iraqi government forces engaged an insurgent group in a big, bloody battle, the Republicans would be happy to publicize it, and even call it evidence of progress.

The real force of admitting that there is a civil war comes from acknowledging that the warring parties are not a democratic government and a terrorist underground. This is a war between Sunni and Shi’a. But if this is a war between Sunni and Shi’a, then there is zero point in US involvement. The government we are backing is Shi’a. Why do we want a Shi’a state? It would no doubt develop close links to Iran. Certainly most Americans wouldn’t see the point in joining such a conflict. Mainstream America neither knows or cares about the Sunni/Shi’a split. Americans might be made to care if they could be persuaded that one kind of Moslem is “the good kind.” But since Al Qaeda are Sunni and Iran is Shi’a, that option is pretty much ruled out.

The current war couldn’t appear more senseless, in either the popular imagination or the informed judgment.


Anonymous said...

That is only one defintion, and by your defintion there have been at least civil wars in Iraq, and atleast 4 in america. The general view of civil war before all this media induced crap about iraq has always been far more conservative, untill a bunch of people started pinning big overused words on this conflict just becouse it involves our troops. I define 'war' as military conflict between governing forces, in the case of civil war, within the borders of a former nation state. The fact is that this is simply not happening in iraq period. Your statement has grounds though, stateing that any insurgency is civil war, but trying to say that setarian hate violence in iraq between sunni and shiate constitutes as litteral civil war is ludicrous.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

That is only one definition, and by your definition there have been at least civil wars in Iraq, and at least 4 in America.

If you ever come back here, I'd like to know what four civil wars you are taking about.

Also, I can totally accept that once you have a rigorous definition of civil war there will turn out to have been more civil wars in the US than our unconsidered conventions would have it.

I define 'war' as military conflict between governing forces, in the case of civil war, within the borders of a former nation state.

Don't you think al-Sadr counts as a governing force?