Monday, November 27, 2006

Back to the Beginning

Nibras Kazimi has been promoting a rather out-of-vogue concept recently, namely that Iraq is not currently embroiled in a civil war. Here is Kazimi decrying the rise of the "academic mercenaries" who are feeding off of the the violence in Iraq [emphasis in the original]:

The policy debate on Iraq is turning more and more bizarre; now it is the “civil war experts” chiming in on what they think is going on in Iraq. Enter Monica Duffy Toft on today’s Op-Ed page of the Washington Post...

[Toft's] whole thesis is based on this assertion: “Most scholars and policy analysts accept that Iraq is now in a civil war.” [...]

I think that Professor Duffy Toft is jumping the gun. It is a sad fact of public life that “intellectualism” is a market commodity, and that various groups of experts are constantly trying to seek out new niches for media appearances and book deals. Now, we have a whole host of “civil war” and “ethnic strife” experts stampeding towards the “Iraq Is No More” limelight. This will only further distort whatever picture emerges out of Iraq...

Despite Kazimi's objections, I tend to side with Toft, and the consensus view, that Iraq is engaged in a low-level civil war. Now, the only areas of disagreement seem to revolve around the level of intensity one ascribes to that civil war, and the extent to which one believes its ferocity would wax or wane post-withdrawal of US forces.

Not for Kazimi, however. He - like Ralph Peters - is sticking by his story, one that was admittedly more fashionable months ago, as the Right and other assorted war supporters were trying to convince the world that it was their eyes that were lying.

The most curious thing about Kazimi's current position, however, is not its counterintuitiveness. Rather, it's that it stands in stark contrast to previous observations made by...Kazimi himself, back in January of this year. Said Kazimi then - perhaps striking the pose of an academic mercenary [emphasis mine]:

I can’t shake the feeling that Iraq went from a state of civil strife to one of civil war without anyone, least of which the Iraqis themselves, realizing it. ...The Shia leadership, ensconced within multiple layers of security details, seem to have missed that the street-level refrain that used to say “give us the signal to fight” has shifted to “go f*ck yourselves, we’ll do this on our own.”

I hear of happy-go-lucky Baghdadi kids—groups of six or seven—organizing themselves into mini-militias. One such group that I know of, killed a militant Sunni preacher in Hai Al-Jami’a last week. Only last year, these guys obsessed about the latest hairstyles and the fanciest cell phone models. Recently, they’ve resolved to kill before getting killed.

What is going on? If this isn’t civil war, then what is the proper technical term for it? I fear that no one can control it at this point—not Sistani, not Badr.

And after the bloodletting subsides, how do you bring a ‘nation’ back together?

Kazimi elaborates on his contradictory, somewhat anachronistic views at a Hudson Institute event held last week (roughly 50 minutes into the presentation). During his presentation, Kazimi claims that in March he arrived at the conclusion that civil war "would" erupt as a result of the Askiraya Shrine bombing in late February of 2006, but that he was wrong in predicting that eventuality. Further, that the perpetrators also believed that such an act would cause civil war to break out, and lead to tens of thousands of deaths.

Interestingly, the rate of civilian casualties has increased since that event and the current levels reported by Iraqi officials, as well as the UN, would put the total since that date in the 25,000-30,000 range. Perhaps Kazimi meant in the immediate aftermath though. Nevertheless, Kazimi's claim that the Askariya bombing changed his outlook on the civil war issue is belied by the observations, excerpted above, that he made in early January of 2006 - almost two whole months before the Askariya incident. Unless Kazimi has broken the code on the space-time continuum.

Kazimi never does elaborate about just what conditions have changed since January (worse across every indicator of civil war, including the number and nature of attacks and related body count) to account for his reversal of opinion. In fact, he doesn't even really acknowledge a "reversal" as such, just that his prediction of an eventual civil war was premature and incorrect - even though his January piece was less prediction than description.

His argument against the use of the term "civil war" to describe the nature of the violence in Iraq hinges on his claim that the Iraqi government has not dissolved, nor has the government broken ranks into separate sects. Aside from the fact that immediately preceding this description of a unified, non-splintered government, Kazimi discusses certain violent factions of the Sadr movement (a group in the ruling coaltion) that are pursuing ulterior agendas (more here), his is an unworkably narrow set of criteria for classifying civil wars.

Only where the government has dissolved can a nation be considered to be in a state of civil war? How many historical examples of civil war would that narrow frame yield? How useful is it then? I'll side with this analysis instead - even if it was the product of a dreaded "academic."

At the end of this Academic Mercenaries post, Kazimi says this [emph. original]:

Sadly, there is very little oversight and accountability within the ranks of irresponsible academics. Ditto for journalists with a clear and petty bias.

I wonder if standards of oversight and accountability, and an acknowledgment of bias, should apply to think tank denizens and columnists of the New York Sun as well?

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