Wars, civil and/or religious: Part I (civil war--nothing civil about it)
The thread on Iraqi federalism inspired a debate in the comments section about whether Iraq is facing a civil war or a religious war, or neither, or both.
Perhaps it's just a question of semantics. We could (and no doubt will) quibble over each and every word in the alternate definitions: "civil," "religious," and "war." But I think we can all agree that the sectarian, religious, and ethnic violence there is greater than desired, and that it's difficult to see how it will end in the near future.*
So, how can we get perspective on what's happening in Iraq right now? One thing that's occurring represents a common phenomenon--as I wrote in this post on Russia and this one on North Korea--which is that, when dictatorships are removed, we face the spectre of chaos and dueling for position between rival factions now released from previous supression.
Dictatorships not only can make the trains run on time (although neither the USSR nor North Korea were/are famous for that), they put a firm lid of tyranny on the simmering tensions of ethnic and religious and other strife, and create an illusion of harmony. Then, when that lid is removed, the pot boils over. In addition--and especially if dictatorships are in power for a long time--they stir up the desire for revenge for old grievances perpetrated by the regime itself.
In Iraq, the pot is boiling, or at least simmering. The split seems to be along Sunni-Shiite lines, which indicates a religious war. But it's not quite that simple (I'll deal in greater depth with this question, and discuss religious wars in general, in Part II, tomorrow).
The Sunni-Shiite split occurred almost at the beginning of Islam, and Iraq is far from the only place it's being played out. To simplify: Shiites dominate Iran, and Sunnis are more numerous in most Arab states (although not in Iraq, where Shiites constitute about two-thirds to the Sunni one-third). But the division is far from clear, and tribes, which also dominate the region, can be quite mixed, as Saudi Prince Turki has observed:
"...in most of Iraq the links and interlinks of Sunni and Shiites go far beyond the efforts to drive them apart," Prince Turki said.
Many Iraqi tribes and clans contain both Sunnis and Shiites, and there are many Sunni-Shiite intermarriages, he noted, and the tribal and clan and personal links cross sectarian lines.
"In practical terms, how could such a civil war happen?" he asked. "It is practically impossible to divide Iraq into sectarian regions. It would mean mass emigration and ethnic cleansing, and a lot of killing between families and tribal groupings.
But that's often true of areas where civil wars erupt. In fact, it's one of the great tragedies of civil war itself. One has only to look at our own bloody Civil War, in which brother literally fought brother, and members of the same graduating class at West Point were generals on either side of the divide, to see how very possible it is.
To give one more example, the Tutsis and Hutus involved in the terrible genocide in Rwanda (mostly Hutus killing Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also at risk) were commonly presented as sharply delineated ethnic groups. But in actuality this was far from the case:
Many researchers point out that both groups speak the same language, have a history of intermarriage and share many cultural characteristics. Traditionally, the differences between the two groups were occupational rather than ethnic...Tutsi can often be physically distinguished as taller than Hutu, but according to the vice president of the National Assembly Laurent Nkongoli, frequently "[y]ou can't tell us apart, we can't tell us apart."
So one thing we can safely say is that the divisions in such wars are murky, and that family ties and long-term interactions don't preclude the explosion of bitter and terrible violence.
Another thing we can say is that civil wars are exceedingly common, even though the majority of them receive far less publicity than the present conflict in Iraq. Take a look at this fascinating article by Monica Duffy Toft, associate professor of Pulic Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Toft discusses whether the present conflict in Iraq qualifies as a civil war. Short answer: yes, it meets all the criteria, which are: (1) dispute over whom will govern; (2) [at least] two groups of organized combatants; (3) the state one of the combatants; (4) at least 1,000 battle deaths per year on average; (5) ratio of total deaths at least 95 percent to 5 percent for the two sides; (6) fought within the boundaries of an internationally recognized state.
But what's most fascinating about Toft's article--at least to me--is its conclusion, which is simply a list of all the civil wars that have darkened the world since 1940.
To save you the trouble of following the link, I hereby reproduce that list. You may get tired of scrolling down, but please bear with me:
Afghanistan I Civil War: Mujahideen, Taliban 1978 2001
Algeria I War of Independence 1954 1962
Algeria II Opposition to Bella 1963 1963
Algeria III Fundamentalists 1992 .
Angola I War of Independence 1961 1974
Angola IIa Angolan Civil War 1975 1994
Angola IIb UNITA Warfare 1998 2002
Argentina Coup 1955 1955
Azerbaijan/USSR Nagorno-Karabakh 1988 1994
Bangladesh Chittagong Hill 1972 1997
Bolivia I Popular Revolt 1946 1946
Bolivia II Bolivian Revolution 1952 1952
Brazzaville Ia Elections 1993 1993
Brazzaville Ib Factional Warfare 1997 1997
Burma I Communist Revolt 1948 1989
Burma II Karens 1948 .
Burma III Shan 1959 .
Burma IV Kachins 1960 1994
Burundi Ia Hutu Coup Attempt 1965 1965
Burundi Ib Hutu Rebellion 1972 1972
Burundi Ic Hutu/Tutsi 1988 1988
Burundi Id Hutu/Tutsi 1991 1991
Burundi Ie Hutu/Tutsi 1993 2003
Cambodia Ia Khmer Rouge 1970 1975
Cambodia Ib Viet Intervention 1978 1991
Cameroon War of Independence 1955 1960
Chad FROLINAT 1965 1997
Chile Army Revolt 1973 1973
China I Com Rev: Final Phase 1945 1949
China III Cultural Revolution 1966 1969
China IIa Tibet 1950 1951
China IIb Tibet 1954 1959
Colombia I La Violencia 1948 1958
Colombia II FARC 1964 .
Costa Rica Civil War 1948 1948
Cuba Cuban Revolution 1956 1959
Cyprus Ia Greek/Turk Clashes 1963 1964
Cyprus Ib Coup/Turk Invasion 1974 1974
Domin Republic Dominican Civil War 1965 1966
Egypt Free Officers' Coup 1952 1952
El Salvador FMLN/FDR 1979 1992
Ethiopia I Eritrea 1961 1993
Ethiopia II Tigray 1975 1991
Ethiopia III Ogaden 1977 1978
Georgia I South Ossetia 1990 1992
Georgia II Abkhazia 1992 1993
Greece Greek Civil War 1944 1949
Guatemala I Coup 1954 1954
Guatemala II Guatemalan Civil War 1960 1996
GuineaBissau I War of Independence 1963 1974
GuineaBissau II Coup 1998 1999
India II Hyderabad 1948 1948
India III Naga Revolt 1956 1997
India IV Sikh Insurrection 1982 1993
India Ia Part/Kash/In-Pak War 1946 1949
India Ib Kashmir 1965 1965
India Ic Kashmir 1988 .
Indonesia I War of Independence 1945 1949
Indonesia III Acheh Revolt 1953 1959
Indonesia IV PRRI Revolt 1958 1961
Indonesia V PKI Coup Attempt 1965 1966
Indonesia VI East Timor 1975 1999
Iran I Kurds/Mahabad 1946 1946
Iran IIa Iranian Revolution 1978 1979
Iran IIb NCR/Mojahedin 1981 1982
Iraq I Army Revolt 1958 1958
Iraq II Mosul Revolt 1959 1959
Iraq IIIa Kurds 1961 1970
Iraq IIIb Kurds 1974 1975
Iraq IIIc Kurds 1980 1991
Iraq IV Shi'ite Insurrection 1991 1993
Israel/Palest Unrest/War of Indep 1945 1949
Jordan Palestinians 1970 1971
Kenya I Mau Mau 1952 1956
Korea Korean War 1950 1953
Laos Pathet Lao 1959 1973
Lebanon Ia First Civil War 1958 1958
Lebanon Ib Second Leb Civ War 1975 1990
Liberia NPFL 1989 1997
Madagascar MDRM/Independence 1947 1948
Malaysia Malayan Emergency 1948 1960
Moldova Trans-Dniester Slavs 1991 1997
Morocco I War of Independence 1952 1956
Morocco II Western Sahara 1975 1991
Mozambique I War of Independence 1964 1975
Mozambique II RENAMO 1976 1992
Namibia War of Independence 1966 1990
Nicaragua Rev/Contra Insurgen 1978 1990
Nigeria I Biafra 1967 1970
Nigeria II Maitatsine 1980 1984
Pakistan I Bangladesh 1971 1971
Pakistan II Baluchi Rebellion 1973 1977
Paraguay Coup Attempt 1947 1947
Peru Shining Path 1980 1999
Philippines I Huks 1946 1954
Philippines II NPA Insurgency 1969 .
Philippines IIIa Moro Rebellion 1972 1996
Philippines IIIb Moro Rebellion 2000 .
Romania Romanian Revolution 1989 1989
Russia Ia First Chechen War 1994 1996
Russia Ib Second Chechen War 1999 .
Rwanda Ia First Tutsi Invasion 1963 1964
Rwanda Ib Tutsi Invasion/Genoc 1990 1994
Sierra Leone RUF 1991 2002
Somalia Clan Warfare 1988 .
South Africa Bl/Whit, Bl/Bl 1983 1994
South Korea Yosu Sunch'on Revolt 1948 1948
Sri Lanka II Tamil Insurgency 1983 .
Sri Lanka Ia JVP I 1971 1971
Sri Lanka Ib JVP II 1987 1989
Sudan Ia Anya Nya 1955 1972
Sudan Ib SPLM 1983 2005
Syria Sunni v. Alawites 1979 1982
Tajikistan Tajik Civil War 1992 1997
Tunisia War of Independence 1952 1956
Turkey Kurds 1984 .
USSR I Ukraine 1942 1950
USSR II Lithuania 1944 1952
Uganda I Buganda 1966 1966
Uganda II War in the Bush 1980 1986
Vietnam I French-Indochina War 1946 1954
Vietnam II Vietnam War 1957 1975
Yemen Southern Revolt 1994 1994
Yemen North I Coup 1948 1948
Yemen North II N. Yemeni Civil War 1962 1970
Yemen South S. Yemeni Civil War 1986 1986
Yugoslavia I Croatian Secession 1991 1995
Yugoslavia II Bosnian Civil War 1992 1995
Yugoslavia III Kosovo 1998 1999
Zaire/Congo I Katanga/Stanleyville 1960 1965
Zaire/Congo II Post-Mobutu 1996 .
Zimbabwe Front for Lib of Zim 1972 1979
You probably have noted quite a few things. First, the list is incredibly long. Second, these are virtually all third-world countries. Third, many of them have had not just one, but a long series of civil wars. Fourth, Iraq has had six previous civil wars since 1940.
The present one would be the seventh. And yes, it's happening on our watch. But the forces that are represented there are the forces that have been long brewing in Iraq. Similar forces are brewing in many unsettled third-world countries (and sometimes it seems that most third-world countries are unsettled).
In addition, some of these civil wars on the list are also proxy international wars, in which foreign powers ally with one segment or other to try to influence matters to the benefit of that foreign power. There's an argument to be made that the present war in Iraq is at least partly just such a proxy war between the US and Iran, just as the Vietnamese war represented (as did so many civil wars of that era) a struggle between Communism and the US.
[Tomorrow, Part II: religious wars]
*[Another thing we can quibble about is whether the present violence in Iraq should have been foreseen, and what (if anything) could have been done to nip it in the bud. I've put this question in a footnate to try to avoid derailing the thread into an argument about these old and oft-debated questions. For myself, I think the shortness and ease of the original, official war was clearly illusory; I fully expected a longer-drawn-out war at the beginning, with violence of the street-to-street variety. And, for the record, I think many errors of judgment were made (and continue to be made) in terms of clamping down more harshly on elements such as Sadr, back when he was first consolidating power; the perception of impending anarchy gripped the nation from the first postwar days. And yet I've never seen alternatives (more troops, etc., or even leaving Saddam in power) as simple solutions--they create their own, alternative, problems.]