Monday, December 11, 2006

The nature of civil war

James Traub, one of my favorite writers, has a piece in this Sunday's New York Times on Iraq and civil wars in general. He quotes James Fearon, a Stanford University expert on civil conflicts, who ticks off the death toll, the massive refugee flows, the major players, and says "by any reasonable definition, Iraq is in the midst of a civil war."

But that's not really the point of this post, which is to delve into what we might expect in the future as Iraq is consumed by sectarian conflict.

Scholars and diplomats who have closely studied civil wars describe them almost as forces of nature, grinding on until the parties exhaust themselves, shredding bonds that cannot be stitched back together even long years after the killing stops.

Wars that do not end quickly -- as the Rwanda civil war did, for instance -- tend to drag on for years. Take Northern Ireland, for example, or (as the article does) Bosnia and Lebanon. All three continued until everyone finally recognized that they were not going to win by force alone and decided that just about any alternative, including compromise with hated enemies, was better than continuing to fight.

In Lebanon -- perhaps the best parallel for Iraq -- that came only after 5 percent of the population was killed or wounded and half had become refugees. Translated to Iraq, those numbers would mean a war that caused 1.3 million casualties and uprooted 13 million people.

The good news, I suppose, is that we're already making excellent headway on those numbers, with death estimates in the 100,000-plus range and 3.4 million refugees.

Given that civil wars are driven by grievances rooted in tribal, religous and ethnic divisions, it's possible to view an Iraq civil war as inevitable. In this instance we were the catalyst, knocking over the dictator that kept the lid on the bubbling pot. But Saddam wasn't going to live forever, and when he finally shuffled off the scene the suppressed tensions were likely to explode anyway. And one could argue that it's better for that to happen sooner rather than later -- otherwise the grievances keep piling up and make the subsequent spasm of violence that much more gruesome.

So what happens if civil war is indeed in Iraq's future? Assuming the Kurds don't simply secede and the Shiites don't overrun the Sunni, this:

When the sectarian combatants finally do exhaust themselves, Iraq will need a great deal of outside help, though not the kind it has received so far. Civil wars liquidate the trust among parties that makes settlements possible; outsiders must act as guarantors and, usually, peacekeepers. And they have to be prepared to make a major commitment: NATO put 60,000 troops in Bosnia, with a population less than one-sixth that of Iraq, to police the Dayton Accords that ended the war. Today 1,900 soldiers from the European Union are sufficient to do the job.

For Iraq, that means returning in several years as peacekeepers, 400,000 strong -- the same number, not coincidentally, that we should have gone in with in the first place. And it probably won't be us doing it, but a coalition of non-Western forces, perhaps under UN flag, that won't rekindle the anti-Western resistance our presence has provoked.

Perhaps from the perspective of history our invasion of Iraq, flawed as it was, will not be viewed as a horrible catastrophe that caused all sorts of problems in the Mideast. Instead, it will be viewed as the event that merely triggered a catastrophe that was coming anyway. It's a measure of our attenuated ambitions that such a historical verdict might be something for us to hope for.

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Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

That's an interesting point, but it assumes, I think, that certain events are inevitable. I don't think history bears that out. For example, in the 40s people might have said (and did)that Soviet expansionism was inevitable and that, unless we took action to eliminate the threat, we would be facing war in a few years anyway. As it turned out, Stalin died, the Cold War stabilized, and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. If we had launched a preventive war in the 40s, we would have killed millions, possibly, unnecessarily. I think the same with Iraq. Yes, you can argue that civil war was inevitable, but you can't be sure that that would be the only outcome. You can't predict what contingencies might have altered what appeared to be a historical inevitability. Moreover, having the civil war now rather than later means that people are dying that would not have or at least earlier. So, I'm not sure we can take much comfort in this analysis because it assumes a historical inevitability that I don't think exists.

12/12/2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Agreed that it's nearly impossible to tell what was historically inevitable and what just happened. In hindsight, many things look inevitable that weren't. But I do think that when you have an artificial country held together by brute force, it's probably inevitable that it will dissolve violently at some point. It's like trying to hold together magnets with opposite polarities -- you can do it, but the minute you relax, they jump apart.

12/13/2006 3:44 PM  

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