Iraqis at war with Iraqis = civil war

iraqq.jpgFor what it’s worth, I’m just not buying this “sectarian violence” bit. I know that it all comes down to definitions, but if you don’t count the terrorist acts of foreign terrorists and the insurgency’s attacks on US and Coalition forces, you’re left with mostly either gang-like criminal violence or civil war. Not a Civil War. A civil war.

Iraqis loosely affiliated with one another are waging war on other Iraqis. Not a war with tanks and artillery (other than mortars) and one side doesn’t wear uniforms. But it is a war, albeit a “low intensity” guerrilla war. It’s more than just angry Sunnis attacking their Shiite neighbors and vice versa. The Iraqi army is heavily involved. The insurgency aims to overthrow the Iraqi government. Some are loyal to the previous government. I just don’t see how you can call it anything other than a civil war.

It’s easy to see why officials are hesitant to call it such, of course, as our friends the Legacy Media would trump it up as some sort of match point against Bush, immediately declare defeat (again), and many people who don’t know better would believe it (again). But the downside of pussy-footing around the “civil war” label is that you’re setting up those same people (the ones who don’t know better) with false expectations. While the situation in Iraq certainly isn’t anything approaching a truly full-scale Civil War or even an environment like the Vietnam war, it is rather grim at this point in time and will continue to be tenuous for years to come as Iraqis settle their differences.

To pretend otherwise today just makes tomorrow tougher to deal with.

I don’t know who has decided on what labels to use for the Iraq vs. Iraq warfare, but I imagine it’s the Bush administration. We need to get a frank description of what’s going on over there from our President and he needs to explain why it’s important and worth the effort. He’s done it before, to an extent, and he’s either been ignored or belittled for doing it. But I don’t think he’s ever done a really good job of it and I don’t think this is the sort of thing you can let lie.

Iraq is not Vietnam. None of the fifty or a hundred previous times we’ve been told things are just like the Tet Offensive have been anything like the Tet Offensive, either militarily or politically. But ignoring/downplaying the Iraqi civil war is setting the stage for Tet-like fallout if the “dead-enders” manage to pull of some significant action. What if the insurgents get a little more organized, and there’s evidence that this is already happening today, and (maybe in conjunction with a major terrorist action like a mosque bombing) stage some major raids and attacks? A lot of folks are going to point fingers at our leadership and cry “You said this wasn’t a civil war!” and they’ll be right for doing so. Even when the insurgents are defeated, probably in a very lop-sided manner, the accusations will echo.

Isn’t that basically what happened after Tet in 1968? And didn’t that set the stage for the next seven years?

Iraq is not like Vietnam, but (as I’ve said before) we could get there from here. We need to be on guard against, obviously, against movement towards a Vietnam-like situation. Ignoring the civil war publicly while reassuring folks that it doesn’t exist is a terrible, terrible risk to take.

UPDATE: Yes, I know that I’m in the minority on this issue, at least when talking about opinions on “this side”. It certainly seems that most pro-American and pro-victory folks are strongly on the “it’s not a civil war” bandwagon.

After I wrote this, I saw that Instapundit pointed out a Belmont Club piece on this. And Trent Telenko at Winds of Change has a good post, too.

I’m not really trying to be contrary, here. And I think that, largely, my position isn’t all that different than that of these fine writers. I think we’re just differing a bit over terminology, and I would rather err on the side of caution than get a little too optimistic a little too soon.

My basic position: The civil war in Iraq began very shortly after the fall of Saddam’s regime, and it is, in fact, a continuation of the earlier civil war in Iraq which was temporarily “won” by the Sunni/Baathist government that ruled the nation for quite some time. It is largely a guerrilla civil war, and the guerrillas have an uneasy alliance with a number of terrorist groups. The insurgents and terrorists cannot win in Iraq, either together or separately, but they will continue to make a mess of things for years to come. This is a battle for the government of Iraq and for the way of life of the Iraqi people, and, as such, it is a war for the future of the nation.

UPDATE 2: Instapundit (thanks for the link!) writes

MurdocOnline says that it is a civil war of sorts, and I agree with that. (See this post from 2004 on the subject). But the press coverage is presenting it as something very different — a sea change in what’s going on, as opposed to, well, what was going on in 2004.

Absolutely! That’s exactly what I’m saying, as my update above notes.

I think what we’re seeing is that the insurgents’ primary enemy has shifted from the US and Coalition “occupiers” to the Iraqi government over the past year to year and a half, and that the Iraqi vs. Iraqi aspect of the struggle is bubbling up to the forefront as the government slowly comes online. This bubbling is due, in no small part, to the increased role that Iraqi military and police forces are playing in the war against the insurgents and terrorists.


  1. I partially agree with your overall position, but I would choose civil conflict over civil war. While whats going on doesn’t meet many peoples definitions of war (level of organization, declarations, etc.), there is certainly a civil conflict going on between factions. If one group declared independence, or formally announced a war against another group, then I think it would be fair to call it a civil war. My feeling is that when/if it erupts there will not be any debate about calling it a civil war, just as few would debate that there is some sort of a civil conflict going on there.

  2. Right. The problem is that when westerners think ‘Civil War’, they picture the huge battles of the American Civil War (or War Between the States, as they say in the South). Or Cromwell fighting the Royals in the English Civil War. Rival religious factions doing drive-bys on each other may be a ‘civil war’ but is certainly a lower level of polarization and itensity.

  3. All of this can be solved by providing vital utilities to the Iraqis. Electricity, food, water, internet access, and basic cable. When you have a comfortable life, it’ll take alot for your to risk it all.

  4. Civil War Civil Conflict Sectarian Strife Insurgency Terrorism Genocide Ethnic Cleansing Festivus Christmas Kwanza blah blah blah… Its all semantics. The truth is there are people out of power and are willing to kill the innocent to get it back. They’d have it back to if it weren’t for Coalition troops and brave Iraqis signing up to defend their country from tyranny.

  5. The sky ain’t falling. Chicken little. As Margret would say, ‘nows not the time to go all wobbly’.

  6. You know, I was just thinking… It probably HAS to be defined as a civil war or something similar in order for the government to legitimately intern prisoners of war. I’m not up to speed on the protocol for that kind of thing but I imagine you can only keep prisoners of war during, you know, a war. Of course you’re right that if that’s the case, it’s been that way all along, since the actual all-out war was over about three years ago.

  7. Yesterday I made an observation along these lines on my blog:

    As we’ve learned the hard way in Somalia, it only takes one ‘Blackhawk down’ to cast serious doubt upon American troops’ continued presence in a perceived state of anarchy, regardless of the nobility or justness of the mission’s purpose. For this to happen again in Iraq would not only conjure the ghosts of Mogadishu, but also create a possibly indelible perception that this state of anarchy is all the U.S. has to show for 3+ years, 2,000+ American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars already spent on Operation Iraqi Freedom – and that the Bush administration, having created this mess in the first place, may not be capable of making things right again. Such a scenario just might finally accomplish what four years of antiwar moonbattery have failed to do.

    I sure hope that doesn’t happen.

  8. Well, there is never a truly pure example, but the distinguishing characteristic of a civil war is that involves two sides that have taken a debate on the nature of their country to a level of conflict. Thus the Spanish and English civil wars were true civil wars in this sense, but the US and the Nigerian ones were only considered in that light by the side that ended up winning. Similarly, the American War of Independence was truly a civil war by that weaker test, only the winning side did not think of it in those terms – those three conflicts were all impure examples. Nevertheless both the pure and the impure examples tended to have a strategic feature in common: the opening moves, before outright hostilities and even in areas away from the early theatres of conflict, were much like the run up to a yacht race. That is, a positioning and a seizing of assets and resources, to deny them to the other side (this is why the American loyalists were unable to contribute much in their own areas, despite their seeming similarity of numbers to the active rebels). By these tests, what is going on in Iraq may be the run up to civil war, just as it was when the American ‘sons of liberty’ were terrorising their neighbours into acquiescence if not always active co-operation, but it is not yet a civil war – it hasn’t yet reached the stage of arguing about the future nature of Iraq by violent means.