Friday, June 01, 2007

I Heard It From a Friend, the Revolution Never Happened

David Patten chose an odd time to strike a contrarian pose and declare that Iraq is not in the throes of a civil war. Odd, because those nattering nabobs of negativism manning the Pentagon announced in March that the situation in Iraq could properly be described as a civil war. Perhaps, like the CIA, the Pentagon has been overrun by peaceniks and other assorted liberal defeatists.

Patten's surge to semantic victory relies on applying a fairly stringent definition of "civil war" to the situation in Iraq - and even then, there is some less than persuasive analysis within that framework. After conceding that other popular definitions of "civil war" would rightly identify Iraq as being in such a state, Patten finds one that might not work, and sticks to it:

The U.S. Army uses five criteria to recognize civil war: 1) The contestants must control territory; 2) there must be a functioning government; 3) each side must enjoy some foreign recognition; 4) the sides should have identifiable and regular armed forces; and 5) they should engage in major military operations.[7] At present, only the first of these five criteria is met in Iraq. Jihadists control territory in Anbar province and some areas on Baghdad's outskirts. But the jihadists do not have a functioning government anywhere in Iraq, nor do they have regular armed forces that engage in major military operations.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Army's definition reveals the latent preference given to conventional wars, and the combatants who love them. The second criteria is an odd one. So, there need to be two functioning governments for a civil war to exist? Why? Certainly many such struggles for power view the then-existing government as the prize itself, such that creating a new alternate government would miss the point entirely. And how does foreign recognition qualitatively impact the nature of a conflict? And what is meant by "recognition"? Would Saudi and Syrian support for Sunni combatants count (note to Patten: they're not all jihadists), or does it have to be a formal declaration? If the latter...well, how quaint.

Further, the suggestion that the various combatants should have identifiable and regular forces just doesn't apply to much of modern warfare as we know it, and will come to know it. For example, why would Sunni combatants want to wear uniforms such that they can be easily identified and neutralized by that rather large and capable foreign military power currently occupying Iraq. Seems like such a move would be as premature as it would be foolhardy.

The same goes for major military operations. For now, the Sunni combatants are content to fight skirmishes, and launch coordinated attacks on police and military outposts (assuming these don't qualify as major military operations) rather than engage in full scale operations that would expose their ranks to retaliation from, again, that muscular foreign power hanging around. It's almost as if Patten is trying to goad the Sunni combatants into brash displays of machismo by doubting their civil war worthiness.

The rest of Patten's piece is a similar exercise in head-tilting and eye-squinting in order to avoid conceding the fact that Iraq is in a civil war - even though Patten admits to...

...the dire situation in Iraq. Insurgents, militias, terrorists, and death squads are killing civilians at an alarming rate. Security forces are unreliable, and the Iraqi government is not meeting the needs of the people. Iraq is in a worse state than U.S. policymakers expected it would be three years ago.

Just don't use the "c" word.

Much more informative, if discouraging, was James Fearon's piece from the penultimate issue of Foreign Affairs. Rather than waste time focusing on cherry-picked definitions of "civil war," Fearon provides historical context, quickly dispenses with categorization issues, and then delves into the type of civil war present, and the policy implications stemming therefrom. A sample:

A civil war is a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies. Everyday usage of the term "civil war" does not entail a clear threshold for how much violence is necessary to qualify a conflict as a civil war, as opposed to terrorism or low-level political strife. Political scientists sometimes use a threshold of at least 1,000 killed over the course of a conflict. Based on this arguably rather low figure, there have been around 125 civil wars since the end of World War II, and there are roughly 20 ongoing today. If that threshold is increased to an average of 1,000 people killed per year, there have still been over 90 civil wars since 1945. (It is often assumed that the prevalence of civil wars is a post-Cold War phenomenon, but in fact the number of ongoing civil wars increased steadily from 1945 to the early 1990s, before receding somewhat to late-1970s levels.) The rate of killing in Iraq -- easily more than 60,000 in the last three years -- puts the conflict in the company of many recent ones that are routinely described as civil wars (for example, those in Algeria, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Sri Lanka). Indeed, even the conservative estimate of 60,000 deaths would make Iraq the ninth-deadliest civil war since 1945 in terms of annual asualties.

A major reason for the prevalence of civil wars is that they have been hard to end. Their average duration since 1945 has been about ten years, with half lasting more than seven years. Their long duration seems to result from the way in which most of these conflicts have been fought: namely, by rebel groups using guerrilla tactics, usually operating in rural regions of postcolonial countries with weak administrative, police, and military capabilities. Civil wars like that of the United States, featuring conventional armies facing off along well-defined fronts, have been highly unusual. Far more typical have been conflicts such as those in Algeria, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and southern and western Sudan. As these cases illustrate, rural guerrilla warfare can be an extremely robust tactic, allowing relatively small numbers of rebels to gain partial control of large amounts of territory for years despite expensive and brutal military campaigns against them. [...]

When they do finally end, civil wars typically conclude with a decisive military victory for one side. Of the roughly 55 civil wars fought for control of a central government (as opposed to for secession or regional autonomy) since 1955, fully 75 percent ended with a clear victory for one side. The government ultimately crushed the rebels in at least 40 percent of the 55 cases, whereas the rebels won control of the center in 35 percent. Power-sharing agreements that divide up control of a central government among the combatants have been far less common. By my reckoning, at best, 9 of the 55 cases, or about 16 percent, ended this way. Examples include El Salvador in 1992, South Africa in 1994, and Tajikistan in 1997.

If successful power-sharing agreements rarely end civil wars, it is not for lack of effort. Negotiations on power sharing are common in the midst of civil wars, as are failed attempts, often with the help of outside intervention by states or international institutions, to implement such agreements. The point of departure for both the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the rebel attack that ended it, for example, was the failure of an extensive power-sharing agreement between the Rwandan government, Hutu opposition parties, and the Tutsi insurgents.

Power-sharing agreements rarely work in large part because civil wars cause combatants to be organized in a way that produces mutually reinforcing fears and temptations: combatants are afraid that the other side will use force to grab power and at the same time are tempted to use force to grab power themselves. If one militia fears that another will try to use force to win control of the army or a city, then it has a strong incentive to use force to prevent this. The other militia understands this incentive, which gives it a good reason to act exactly as the first militia feared. In the face of these mutual, self-fulfilling fears, agreements on paper about dividing up or sharing control of political offices, the military, or, say, oil revenues are often just that -- paper. They may survive while a powerful third party implicitly threatens to prevent violent power grabs (as the United States has done in Iraq), but they are likely to disintegrate otherwise. [emphasis added]

In the bolded excerpt, Fearon recognizes and accounts for the potent variable that Patten ignores: the presence of US forces affects behaviors of the civil war combatants, but our analysis should not be led astray by this influence. More from Fearon:

In fact, there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparable in important respects to other civil wars that have occurred in postcolonial states with weak political institutions. Those cases suggest that the Bush administration's political objective in Iraq -- creating a stable, peaceful, somewhat democratic regime that can survive the departure of U.S. troops -- is unrealistic. Given this unrealistic political objective, military strategy of any sort is doomed to fail almost regardless of whether the administration goes with the "surge" option, as President George W. Bush has proposed, or shifts toward a pure training mission, as advised by the Iraq Study Group.

Even if an increase in the number of U.S. combat troops reduces violence in Baghdad and so buys time for negotiations on power sharing in the current Iraqi government, there is no good reason to expect that subsequent reductions would not revive the violent power struggle. Civil wars are rarely ended by stable power-sharing agreements. When they are, it typically takes combatants who are not highly factionalized and years of fighting to clarify the balance of power. Neither condition is satisfied by Iraq at present. Factionalism among the Sunnis and the Shiites approaches levels seen in Somalia, and multiple armed groups on both sides appear to believe that they could wrest control of the government if U.S. forces left. Such beliefs will not change quickly while large numbers of U.S. troops remain.

Then again Mr. Fearon, the Sunnis aren't wearing uniforms, they have yet to form a shadow government and no foreign power has formally recognized them. So let's not jump to conclusions. The rest of his piece, as they say, is well worth the read.

(hat tip on the Patten article to Matt Y)

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