Is Iraq in civil war, and does it matter whether we define the conflict that way or not? I believe the answer to the first question is clearly yes. The answer to the second is that it matters some (but perhaps not a lot).
The critical question is whether we and our Iraqi partners have a plausible strategy for victory — or at least a strategy for averting outright defeat, chaos in Iraq, the possibility of broader regional instability and the likelihood of an Iraqi government eventually emerging that is not at all to our liking. I am increasingly worried that the answer to this central question is no. But let's return for now to the questions of the day about civil war.
There are several possible definitions of civil war. The first is a broad term used to describe any society experiencing significant and at least semi-organized armed violence. By this criterion, Iraq is unambiguously in civil war. In fact, it has been since 2003. Often, research groups such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute call any conflict with more than 1,000 documented violent fatalities a year a civil war. Since Iraq is experiencing 3,000 such deaths a month, it exceeds this threshold by a factor of more than 30.
A second, and somewhat more specific and restrictive, definition of civil war is any conflict in which armed partisans fight in an organized way to pursue political aims in favor of their respective group at the expense of others. By this measure, Iraq has probably been in civil war since the Feb. 22, 2006 bombing of a holy Shia mosque in Samarra. (For a largely concurring view, see Lt. Gen. David Petraeus GS '87's remarks at Brookings this past September; I had the honor of attending grad school at Woody Woo with Petraeus, though he was in and out with his Ph.D. in about two or two-and-a-half years and it took me six). Since that date, according to the Pentagon's own data, there have been 10 to 15 violent incidents between different ethnic groups per day, in contrast to zero or one prior to that point. Increasingly since February, the militias committing such acts have been affiliated with, and often egged on by, political leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr. I think this is the most accurate possible definition of civil war, hence I conclude that Iraq has been in such a state for about nine to 10 months now.
There is only one plausible definition of civil war that Iraq does not currently qualify for: all-out conflict in which central government dissolves and all major political figures take sides in a struggle that becomes primarily a battlefield test of power. (The American civil war was such a struggle, as were the Rwandan and Bosnian civil wars of the 1990s.) Thankfully, Iraq is not in such a state, which is another way of saying that things could still get much worse.
The simplest conclusion to reach is that Iraq, now one of the two or three most violent places on Earth, is in civil war but not yet all-out absolute civil war.
Does it matter? Politically, here at home, I believe Americans care less about semantics and more about whether they sense we have a credible strategy for victory — or at least for achieving some measure of stability in Iraq.(Research from various scholars, including Duke University professor Peter Feaver who now works for President Bush, backs up this generalization about what most determines American public support for the nation's wars.) I think the answer is that clearly Americans do not believe we are winning. They do not believe we presently have a strategy that will change the trajectory in Iraq. In other words, we already knew we were losing, whether one called this a civil war or not. The important question is can we turn things around, not whether we can find some way to spin events in Iraq into a more positive picture than the facts warrant.
For the second straight semester at Princeton, I now have the honor of working with some very fine students to try to figure out ways to change the dynamic within Iraq. There is in my view still hope of doing so.
But let's call a spade a spade: Right now we are part of a losing operation, and Iraq is in a civil war. What is more, American voters know it — meaning that 2007 will probably be make or break time for this country's willingness to continue the war effort. Michael O'Hanlon '82 GS '91 is a visiting lecturer at the Wilson School and Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy Studies the Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair at the Brookings Institution. He is coauthor of "Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security" and may be reached at email@example.com.
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