Iraqi Civil War by the Numbers
Steve Clemons has an interesting post on the continuing debate over whether Iraq is in or on the verge of civil war. He provides an excellent roundup of what various politicians and experts are arguing on the subject. He then reaches an epiphany through an exchange with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga.
I had written in an email that I thought that we had reached a point of real civil war in Iraq and added that “the only question is the temperature of the conflict. . .60-70 deaths a day can easily rise to 600-700.”
The Civil War I partly lived through, in El Salvador, cost 100,000 lives over 12 years.
That’s an average of 23 per day.
The civil war in Algeria has cost 200,000 lives since 1988, or roughly 37 killed per day.
And so on. What we’re seeing in Iraq is far more horrific than your garden-variety modern-day civil war. It truly, honestly, isn’t a matter of debate anymore. As for temperature, it’s already twice to three times as hot of some of the most recent, deadliest civil wars.
He’s absolutely right.
As I argued in a September 2004 TCS piece, however, a definition of “civil war” based only on casualty figures makes little sense because it “would include any significant insurgency and could conceivably cover even large terrorist operations or criminal enterprises such as narco-terrorists in Latin America or Al Capone-style gangsterism.” A better definition has been put forth by Stanford political scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin:
(1) They involved fighting between agents of (or claimants to) a state and organized, non-state groups who sought either to take control of a government, take power in a region, or use violence to change government policies. (2) The conflict killed or has killed at least 1000 over its course, with a yearly average of at least 100. (3) At least 100 were killed on both sides (including civilians attacked by rebels). The last condition is intended to rule out massacres where there is no organized or effective opposition.
The numerical threshholds in (2) and (3) had long been reached even when I wrote that article. The key, though, is the political component in (1). While there is indeed a terrible amount of violence in Iraq that, as Kos notes, dwarfs that seen in some conflicts that everyone agreed were “civil wars,” most of it has been perpetrated by terrorists and others with no intention of governing.
Now, it’s debatable that there is a civil war even by this definition, depending on how loosely one defines “change government policies.” But I would contend that there are a relative handful of guerrillas and terrorists perpetrating the violence in Iraq. There are also a handful of regional “militias” and others with a different political agenda. Together, though, these groups have much more in common with the narco-terrorists in Colombia than with the FMLN guerillas in El Salvador or the various groups that opposed the government in Algeria. We are not yet at the point where significant numbers of Sunnis or Kurds are fighting to secede from Iraq or guerillas are trying to topple the existing. government and substitute their own.
This is not merely an academic debate over semantics. As I argued in a follow-on TCS piece last month, while we have a duty to try to help the Iraqis re-establish the level of security that they had before we overthrew Saddam, we can not take sides in a civil war.
Thankfully, however, the upsurge of violence that followed the destruction of the Golden Mosque has been defused and we are back to the more “routine” car bombings and other terroristic killings. There is still, therefore, time to establish civil society and maintain the thin web of Iraqi nationalism.
Iraqi Civil War? An Update
Poll: Most Americans Believe Iraq Civil War is Likely
Bush Will Stay the Course if Civil War Breaks Out in Iraq
Give Civil War a Chance, Part II
TCS Daily – Give Civil War a Chance
Iraq War Progress Report: A Matter of Time
Iraq’s Cycle of Violence
Al-Askariya Shrine Attack Has Iraq on Brink of Civil War