Friday, August 04, 2006

# Posted 5:58 PM by Taylor Owen  

CIVIL WAR OR INTERNAL ARMED CONFLICT?: Lots of recent talk (again) about whether Iraq is a civil war. In part, fuelled by the following exchange (DoD link down):
Q: Is the country closer to a civil war?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I don’t know. You know, I thought about that last night, and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different.
But is it really this subjective? There is a relatively established academic discourse on civil war - as a word, a phrase, and what constitutes it. Surely it can tell us something?

I have had the good fortune of doing my requisite year of IR data coding (in my case counting the rivers that cross every international border) at the Center for the Study of Civil War at PRIO. Along with SPIRI, they are responsible for compiling the data sets used for large-N studies of inter and intra state conflict. By the standard coding definition a civil war is an internal conflict that results in at least 1,000 combat-related fatalities, 5% of which are sustained by government and rebel forces. Another definition puts the bar at 25.

These thresholds have of course long been surpassed in Iraq. If this is the case though, then why haven’t we been calling this a civil war for the past two years?

Several months ago, I asked this of an old colleague who is far better versed in the discourse than I. A particularly interesting response from a particularly wise Norwegian is worth quoting:
What we see in Iraq is absolutely an armed internal conflict, but it is not a war. By drawing this distinction I want to separate between two modes of political violence: Civil War is actively pursuing an ultimate objective, in this case the government of Iraq, through all means available, and Armed conflict, as we see now, is a political conflict where the careful appliance of violence is useful in order to signal resolve and in order to temporarily avoid some sort of outcome.
By this characterization, he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an armed conflict rather than a war. Iraq, by this measure, should therefore be considered not a civil war, but an Internal Armed Conflict. This can of course evolve as the interest of various parties emerge, and it perhaps already has.

While there are political/strategic reasons for and against labeling Iraq as a particular type of conflict, these labels, as used in academia, are relatively well established. Because the Iraqi conflict does not look like the US civil war, is a pretty silly defense for not calling a spade a spade, or at least something that looks quite similar to a spade...
(9) opinions -- Add your opinion

I would imagine most Iraqis living in fear of random death would regard this as a distinction without a difference.
The terms may be well-established in academia but they are not well-known in the public or in the media. Given that the definitions are largely ad hoc and that the few civil wars that the public knows (American Civil War, English Civil War, Lebanese Civil War, Spanish civil war), it's a given that once you claim the situation is a civil war, it gets painted as an admission of Armageddon.

A case in point would be the recent british diplomatic cable which spoke about a "low-intensity civil war" being likely. Practically every report that I read sexed up the report by stripping away the words "low-intensity".

So if you are going to label denials that Iraq is not a civil war in the generally accepted meaning of the phrase as "pretty silly", then it behoves you to actually to come up with better suggestions other than the usage of academic terminology with faint resemblence to public understanding of the phrase.
Many military events do not lend themselves to definitions used in academia. Armed internal conflict seems broad enough to encompass what now occurs in Iraq. I have been involved, as a passer by, in serious armed conflict between muslims and christians and anamists in Zamboanga where the issues were neighborhood brawls that festered every few months and had nothing to do with haute politique. David Kenney.
Peter, I wasn't saying that the denial itelf was silly, but rather the flippant nature of the reasoning behind it - "If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different."
Taylor, he wasn't speaking at a thesis defense to an audience with an understanding of the academic definition of civil war. He was speaking to Senators and other Americans who, as Peter said, immediately associate the term with our Civil War. If he had said, "as the term is established in academic discourse, yes," the headline would have been "Rumsfeld: Iraq in Civil War," and the phrase 'academic discourse' would show up on page A22.
Bgates- I don't disagree that there would be political and strategic implications to using the term - but if it is the case, then so be it. Perhaps it will help in properly addressing the severity of the problem.

As for the sillyness of his comments, the following is one list (there are others that vary slightly) of civil wars that are ongoing or ended in the last decade:

Afghanistan, 1992-2002, armed conflicts subsist; Algeria, conflicts subsist; Angolan Civil War, 1974-1989, 1995-1997,
1998-2002; Basque Country, conflicts subsist; Burundi, 1988-1991, 1993-2001; Cambodia, 1978-1993, 1997-1998; Colombia, 1964-present; Darfur, Sudan –present; First Congo War, Zaire, 1996-1997; Second Congo War, DRC, 1998-present; Republic of the Congo, 1997, 1998; Côte d'Ivoire, 1999-2000, 2002-present; East Timor/Indonesia, 1975-1999; Georgian Civil War, Abkhazia, South Ossetia in Georgia, still going on; Guatemalan Civil War, 1960-1996; Guinea-Bissau, 1998-1999; Haiti ?-present; Iraq 2003-present; Israel and Palestine, 1967-present, see Palestinian territories etc; Kashmir, ?-present; Kyrgyzstan, ?-present; Kurdistan, Iraq, Kurdish Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, 1961-1970, 1988-2003; Liberian Civil War, Liberia, 1989-1996, 1999-2003; Nepalese People's War, Nepal, 1996-present; Philippines, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, 1972-1996, 2001-Present; Rwanda, 1990-1997; Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka, 1983-2001, conflicts subsist; Sierra Leone, 1991-2002; Somalian Civil War, 1991-present; Sri Lankan Civil War 1972-present; Sudanese Civil War, Southern Sudan, 1955-1972, 1983-2005(?); Tajikistan Civil War, Tajikistan, 1992-1997; Uganda, 1987-present; Yemen, 1979-1989, 1994, 2000s.

Few, if any of these look(ed) much like the American civil war. Using that as the criteria for the label is “silly”.
OK, do those other conflicts look much like Iraq (he asked out of ignorance)? The only two on the list I know anything about are Israel and the Sudan. The warring parties in those conflicts hold distinct pieces of land, and more importantly are coherent enough that the American people can decide whose side they are on. I think it's valid to make a distinction between that kind of situation and what's happening in Iraq, which seems to be heading more towards 'all against all'. I wouldn't object if Rumsfeld described it like your Norwegian friend, which would also have consequences, but would give people a more accurate image of what's happening than the common understanding of the term 'civil war'.
Pace and Rumsfeld didn't avoid "civil war" because of comparisons to the US Civil War. Americans aren't that obtuse. The reason Pace and Rumsfeld avoided the term "civil war" is that it would signify total defeat of the American project in Iraq. Once Americans conclude that Iraq is in a civil war, and NONE of the sides are worth supporting, support for withdrawal will skyrocket. Thus, the Administration has grudgingly accepted the term "insurgency" because it conjures the idea that there is a functioning government and those trying to destroy it. But when the chief actors in the sectarian civil war are pro-Iranian militias operating out of the Interior Ministry - and their prime opposition Sunni militants sometimes aligned with Al Qaeda - it's no surprise that Americans would say it's time to high-tail it out of there. Civil war = failure.
Elrod almost has it.

The left has defined "civil war" as being completely unmanageable. Thus, getting the Iraq venture labled a "civil war", whether it is or not, is a goal of the left.

It's like Viet Nam. We lost in Viet Nam. The left has defined Viet Nam as having been completely unwinnable from the get-go, through some kind of juju. Thus, to avoid a certain loss, we shouldn't have started. And therefore labeling some other effort "another Viet Nam" is code for we can't win, so we shouldn't start. The real fear is, of course, that we might win, and that would never do. So the creaking "Viet Nam" meme is hauled out yet again.

The same process is seen in "civil war". As soon as somebody in authority says it might be, then we have "AHA!! It's over. Home now." Whether the facts of the case have changed or not is immaterial. The label is the key.

As a general rule, one side or the other usually wins in a civil war. Even if it's to break up the country along some agreed border.

So there's no reason we couldn't try to help our side win.

IMO, the academic definition of civil war runs too close to including fighting against large, armed gangs of bandits, sometimes facilitated by a neighboring state. You don't have to use our Civil War as a template to think that banditry and failed-state status shouldn't qualify as civil wars. IMO, a civil war would only be considered if all major combatants showed at least some possibility of governing if they win. Certain examples of "governing" in Africa are not to be used as examples.
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