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.