Iraq in Chaos, Not Civil War

John Keegan, defence editor of the London Daily Telegraph and arguably the most important military affairs writer of his generation, contends that the chaos in Iraq is not a civil war.

He contends as I have for some time (See, for example, my Dec. 2004 TCS essay “Civil War Enthusiasts“) that in addition to violence and primarily domestic participants there is a third key element that defines a civil war.

The point of the violence must be sovereign rule: combatants must be trying either to seize national power or to maintain it. This is the difference between, for example, the Russian civil war and the tribal rebellions now taking place in 14 of India’s 28 states, or the late 1990s insurgency of Subcomandante Marcos in Mexico. Revenge, struggles for rights, mass criminality and positioning for economic gain are not sufficient, individually or severally. The opponents must be fighting to rule.

[…]

There are three major categories of player in Iraq’s domestic violence, each of which has important internal divisions. The Sunni insurgency dominated the violence until spring of this year, when its bombing of the mosque at Samarra finally delivered the long-standing goal of goading Shias into large-scale reprisals. The Sunni violence is composed of two principal parts, one motivated by hardcore Wahhabist and Salafist Islam, and the other by the secular outlook of Baathism.

The second main category is the Shia militias. The most dangerous and active of these is the Mahdi army associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, a fractious and nebulous phenomenon that includes many groups whose connection to the movement is nominal. The older and less active—though better organised—Shia militia is the Badr Organisation, formed during the Shia struggle against Saddam, and originally trained and based in Iran. Badr belongs to Sciri, one of Iraq’s two main Iranian-backed political parties and is almost always at odds with the al-Sadr movement, which derives its popularity from Iraqi nationalism.

The third major player in the Iraqi civil killing is the tendency that fights on behalf of the Iraqi state against the sectarian agendas of the Sunni insurgency and the Shia militias. The Iraqi police, police commandos and other ministry of interior forces have been heavily infiltrated by the militias, especially the Mahdi army. The Iraqi army is far more independent. With almost 500,000 Iraqis serving with the police or army, it seems safe to say well over 100,000 Iraqis are fighting for the state against the militias and the insurgents. They represent a major armed faction whose agenda is the preservation of a unified, secular and pluralistic state.

The most striking feature of the civil violence in Iraq is that it is for the most part decidedly unmilitary. Despite the names of the two Shia militias, only the third group, the state forces, exhibits the military characteristics of the principal actors in the five conflicts that we recognise as civil wars: uniforms, clear chains of command, acknowledged leadership, and official, public war aims.

There are no, or almost no, battles in Iraq’s domestic killing. Civilians are the principal targets. The looser definition of the “war” part of civil war nonetheless acknowledges that if factions or regions are killing enough people for enough time, it can be petty not to recognise the conflict as something very like a war. Iraq meets this standard only partly: the non-state players for the most part lack anything like the public character of players in civil wars to date. In other words, it is not so much that Iraq is a conflict without uniforms and fighting that prevents it from being a civil war, but rather that it is violence in which no player except the state and al Qaeda, which is a minor player, says what it wants, or indeed says that it wants anything other than the continuation of the country’s elected government. (One Sunni Islamist group has recently called for a separate Sunni state.)

An important feature of the conflict in Iraq is the lack of public rhetoric against the enemy by popular leaders. All of Iraq’s leaders call constantly for unity, tolerance and an end to the violence. This was far from the case with Lenin, Franco, Cromwell or even Lincoln. To the extent that Iraq’s violence involves separatist and regional tendencies, the lack of any public aspect to the factional desires extends to an absence of explicit territorial ambitions. (The Kurds do not feature much in Iraq’s civil war scenario. They are essentially separate from the Arab Iraqi state, and should they move to formalise this status, no Arab Iraqi player will be strong enough to stop them.)

This is largely a semantic argument; whether we call it “civil war” or “chaos” it remains a bloody mess and perhaps an intractable one.

It is important, though, because it focuses attention on a rather critical fact: In a civil war, the winner governs. That was the case in the English, American, Russian and Spanish Civil Wars. In Iraq, however, there is no shadow government waiting to take over the reigns of power. The violence seems likely to continue until it is either suppressed by an effective government that gains the confidence and cooperation of its citizenry or until Iraq fractures into innumerable micro-states incapable of governance.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Zuky says:

    The Nation, the attacks were a humiliation for a nation that viewed its superpower status as identical to a kind of invulnerability. Finally, Jon Swift is at it again: …I must say I don’t think this war is very civil at all. How can you call a war civil when over 600,000 Iraqi civilians have died according to one estimate, more than 3,000 American troops, 65 just this month, have been killed, and which has devolved into a situation where it’s

  2. Original Article syndicated via RSS from Outside The Beltway | OTB

  3. Zuky says:

    The Nation, the attacks were a humiliation for a nation that viewed its superpower status as identical to a kind of invulnerability. Finally, Jon Swift is at it again: …I must say I don’t think this war

  4. MSM engaged in running gun-battle with U.S. Forces…

    Has there ever been a time in American history that the Department of Defense (or its predecessor, the War Department) was forced to mount “information operations” against the mainstream media? I strongly encourage all bloggers to link to the DOD’s…

  5. cian says:

    The level of violence now being witnessed in Iraq has moved beyond the old descriptions. As commentators struggle to define this new phase of blood-letting, civil war seems the right choice. Certainly it is closer to what is happening than ‘chaos’.

    For the Iraqis themselves, the luxury of debating correct terms is not one they can afford. Having disbanded their army, police force and civil service, America has set the stage for the final conflagration from which it must now stand back and allow to burn out in its own time.

    Meanwhile, in their powerlessness to change anything or help anyone, those who supported the war continue to execute delicate linguistic pirouettes in an effort to avoiding calling Iraq what it is- a human catastrophe.

  6. Bithead says:

    This is largely a semantic argument; whether we call it “civil war” or “chaos” it remains a bloody mess and perhaps an intractable one.

    It is important, though, because it focuses attention on a rather critical fact: In a civil war, the winner governs

    Well, it’s more than semantics, James. Civil war most certainly involves two factions within one nation… but does not involve so many outside agents. And that’s where the second line I quoted, comes into play… these external agents are after control of Iraq… and all that implies.

  7. Jon Swift says:

    What’s So Civil About the Iraq War?…

    I don’t think the Iraq War is very civil at all….

  8. Beldar says:

    If we lose, the result could possibly be “Iraq fracture[d] into innumerable micro-states incapable of governance,” but I suspect that it’s more likely that the result would be three to five fairly large chunks in which proxy governments sponsored by, beholden to, and dependent upon Iran and/or Syria would have some loose reign. The Kurds would have another chunk, unless and until overwhelmed by one or some combination of the newly “independent” former regions. Genuine fragmentation would be likely if there were widespread popular (meaning “among the population”) resistance to the central government being overthrown, but without major outside influences. And that doesn’t describe Iraq today.

  9. davod says:

    Why we do this to ourselves I do not know.

    Now everyone has informed the ratbags what we think a civil war is they will go out and establish a government in exile.

    I believe the French wanted to encourage an alternative government early on. Although, I think this was so they could keep stirring the pot.

  10. Jim Henley says:

    In Iraq, however, there is no shadow government waiting to take over the reigns of power.

    Oh really? You know this how?

    Sadr is out there providing services on the street, like a mafia don. The Salafists are enforcing edicts in the towns they control. There have been repeated rumors of planned neobaathist coups. I’m completely unconvinced that the various factions don’t have ambitions to become “the government” of all or as much of Iraq as they can control. You and Keegan seem to be confusing means and end. It’s like you’re seeing what each faction can manage so far and taking it for all they think they can ever manage.

    What’s pretty obvious is that the Sunni and Shiite maximalists are pouring great big piles of money into their efforts. None of us are privy to their strategy sessions, but the sensible assumption is that they expect all that money to buy them something pretty major.

  11. Triumph says:

    whether we call it “civil war” or “chaos” it remains a bloody mess and perhaps an intractable one.

    “Failed state” probably best describes the situation.

    Unlike most failed states that decend into chaotic anarchy through protracted civil wars, Bush has actually single-handedly created a failed state in Iraq.

    It would actually be preferable for Bush, politically, to start calling the failed state of Iraq as being emeshed in a civil war. Civil Wars have belligerents who can be negotiated with, whereas failed states are essentially anarchistic.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Jim: In the other civil wars Keegan cites, there was a single, organized entity fighting the government forces with clear, publicly stated political aims at establishing/maintaining sovereignty. As Keegan explains, even in just the part I excerpted above, there is no evidence of this in Iraq.

    Warlords trying to maintain de facto control of their area of operations don’t qualify. Otherwise, we’d consider the various narco-terrorists in Colombia and elsewhere to be engaged in a civil war. Instead, we say they are merely engaged in criminal violence. They are, as Hitchens describes them, “forces of nihilism” rather than would-be sovereigns.

  13. Anderson says:

    there was a single, organized entity fighting the government forces with clear, publicly stated political aims at establishing/maintaining sovereignty

    An artificial definition. In the Russian civil war, there was no such single entity, which is one reason why the Whites lost.

    Keegan has been going downhill lately, & this latest isn’t changing my mind about that. How he thinks the Sunnis aren’t seeking sovereignty … that’s just bizarre.

  14. DC Loser says:

    Civil war most certainly involves two factions within one nation… but does not involve so many outside agents.

    So the Condor Legion and the International Brigade didn’t mean anything in the Spanish Civil War?

  15. Jim Henley says:

    James, Hitchens has been pushing the “forces of nihilism” line for ages regardless of facts. It’s just a way of pretending the other side has no aims. Meanwhile the President insists just yesterday that these “forces of nihilism” want to rule the entire territory from Spain to Indonesia. That’s a lot of ambition for people with no ambition.

    The Confederacy never sought dominion over all of North America. The Russian Whites, as Anderson points out, were never a unified opposition.

    Here’s my challenge: 1. Explain how, in your and Keegan’s formulation, the Lebanese Civil War was a civil war. 2. Explain how the current strife in Iraq differs from the situation in Lebanon from, say, 1975-1985.

    In Lebanon you had multiple factions, many of whom had no plausible chance of siezing the entire country. You probably remember the classic Jeff McNally cartoon. In Lebanon you had foreign militaries on the ground exerting direct control and working through proxies (Israel and Syria). In Lebanon much of the violence was against civilians at the neighborhood level. Much of it was hard to ascribe to classic military strategy (e.g. sniping civilians on their way to the market). In Lebanon you had suicide bombers and other terror tactics employed by most sides. You had a nominal “legitimate democratic government” with nearly complete control over its own office complexes and not much else, but with army and police forces that allegedly served the country as a whole.

    We called this a civil war at the time. Either Keegan requires us to retroactively rename it, which literally revisionist history, or he and you needs to find a distinction between the parameters of Lebanon’s situation then and Iraq’s situation now which I confess is not remotely obvious to me.

  16. […] In his contribution today to the “civil war” discussion currently going on James Joyner writes: This is largely a semantic argument; whether we call it “civil war” or “chaos” it remains a bloody mess and perhaps an intractable one. […]

  17. James Joyner says:

    Jim: Keegan characterizes Lebanon (1975-90) as a civil war in the linked piece, although he doesn’t offer any discussion. My hazy understanding of that conflict is that it was really multiple wars, some civil, some international, rather than a single conflict.

    The American Civil War was really only that in hindsight because the Union won and thus was able to make the contention that the Confederate States of America was a rebellion rather than a war for independence. Still, with the hindsight of knowing how it came out, we can see that we have two distinct, uniformed military forces from “the same country” fighting for the right to determine the political future of the two/one polity/ies.

    That there is a vague jihadist movement that would like to extend Islamist rule throughout the region, if not the world, is not really good evidence of a civil war. Indeed, it would seem to point to an international conflict that happens to have its main fighting taking place in a single state.

  18. Triumph says:

    The American Civil War was really only that in hindsight because the Union won and thus was able to make the contention that the Confederate States of America was a rebellion rather than a war for independence.

    The American Civil War–or, as they say in the South, “The War of Northern Agression”–had international involvement similar to the Lebanese case. The British were supporting the Confederacy through their Canadian territories and the Trent Affair nearly resulted in the Brits going into a fighting war against the Union.

    They actually had troops prepared to make preemptive strikes in northern New York and Vermont. John MacDonald–who would later become the first Prime MInister of Canada–was head of the Canadian Militia and put nearly 100,000 troops on the northern flank of the US.

    These British actions had dramatic impacts on the southern front, as Union resources had to be allocated with the threat of a northern invasion a real possiblity.

  19. Tano says:

    “In a civil war, the winner governs”

    Huh? You have any doubt that, if a winner emerges, they would govern?

  20. James Joyner says:

    Tano: I don’t see any opposing force that has “winning” in that sense as a goal. They’re trying to drive the U.S. out and play tit-for-tat in the internecine violence. Who has declared the goal of governing Iraq?

  21. Dave Schuler says:

    From the look of things lately, James, it certainly looks to me as though driving the Americans out had become a secondary objective (we’d already have left if things were stable in January 2005) and revenge, crime, and internal power struggles were the primary objectives.

  22. Tano says:

    James,
    I dont really understand your point. It is a struggle for power. Of course, driving the Americans out is key to that. But establishing themselves in power is undoubtedly the even deeper goal. Of course, al-Q forces, al-Sadr and his guys, and plenty of others would love to find themselves sitting in the palace someday.

    They all have gradiose visions of a new type of society – remember the caliphate? Or sharia law? Or, for some, a modernist secular state? Or independence for their region? They all want to define the future of Iraq, and are fighting for the power to implement their vision.

    Sorry, I think it really silly to try and find semantical reasons to deny the obvious – this is an internal war within a society for control of that society’s destiny. A civil war.

  23. The Heretik says:

    Obscenities…

    Can we finally agree to be civil? At least about a definition? The obscenity is finally recognized, even as further reality slouches ahead.
    Why did it take so long for the media to use the term civil war? The answer says a lot about the relationship …

  24. […] Eugene Kane does the whole “see I told ya so” business about NBC News and the LA Times calling the Iraq mess a “civil war.” It’s obvious he hasn’t read acclaimed military historian John Keegan and Bartle Bull [via OTB] who write, Objectively, it must be concluded that the disorders in Iraq do not constitute a civil war but are nearer to a politico-military struggle for power. Such struggles in Muslim countries defy resolution because Islam is irreconcilably divided over the issue of the succession to Muhammad. It might be said that Islam is in a permanent state of civil war (at least where there is a significant minority of the opposing sect) and that authority in Muslim lands can be sustained only by repression if the state takes on a religious cast, since neither Shia nor Sunni communities can concede legitimacy to their opponents. […]