Most sensible people agree that when and if Iraq devolves into a full-blown civil war America will have nothing left to do but bleed. The term obviously has some flexibility – we don’t need Lee meeting
Grant Meade (dumb mistake) at Gettysburg to know that things have passed a tipping point – but beyond that America’s interested parties have largely chosen definitions that suit them best. Many leftie bloggers believe that we are already there, which I think is a hair premature for reasons that I will get into momentarily. Of course we opinionsmiths have scant influence on the country at large, as opposed to the criminally negligent policymakers who refuse to acknowledge that words like ‘civil war’ have any meaning at all.
As I understand it the term ‘civil war’ refers to two or more defined sets of combatants fighting to carve out separate territories from a previously-unified nation, or else for one to politically subjugate the other(s). Are we there yet? I don’t think that we are, but looking at what I call my civil war checklist it doesn’t seem like we have much time left before we get there.
Step 1: Clearly delineated combatants. The importance of this step depends on the goals of the civil war. If one group wants to subjugate the other then physical separation of the two parties is not as critical, but when the parties are trying to carve out separate territories this point is crucial. India’s separation from Pakistan and the dissolution of Yugoslavia both required massive ethnic migrations before the new nations made any sense. Iraq like Yugoslavia started out as a relatively cosmopolitan country which, while it kept its geographic ethnic enclaves, would require massive population transfers to reach the necessary level of purity.
Sadly, that process began over a year ago.
The grieving families in this predominantly Shi’ite district had collected their dead — all Sunnis — on Friday amid fury at the execution-style murders of the men and terror at the spread of sectarian killings in the run-up to this Saturday’s referendum on a new constitution.
Many believe the killers’ aim is to drive them out in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that is polarising communities, casting suspicion on the Iraqi police and undermining confidence in the ability of the Baghdad government to maintain security.
Both Shiite and Sunni have gone about purifying neighborhoods in which they hold the majority. It is a thorny issue to separate cause from effect, whether these cleansings are specifically meant to facilitate a coming breakup or whether they simply represent a ‘neighborhood watch’ on steroids, but in the end I don’t have to. Whatever the intention, the ease with which the country can fall into a bloody ethnic breakup is directly proportional to the degree to which the ethnicities separate themselves.
Step 2: Organized militias under sectarian control. Everybody knows Shia militias such as Badr Brigades and SCIRI, many of which show military levels of discipline and coordination. We take it for granted that the dismissed Iraqi army and Mukabarat, Saddam’s KGB, went underground to serve Sunni interests. Al Qaeda in Iraq can also be considered a Sunni militia of sorts, although it is largely a foreign operation and I think that it would be an oversimplification to say that Zarqawi’s forces (under new management, although most likely still foreign) serve the Iraqi Sunnis in any meaningful way. The Riverbend blog offers a mixed message – even cosmopolitan suburbanites are forming their own militias for self-protection, but on a personal level many still refuse to accept the Shiite-Sunni split.
Hopeful talk aside, momentum is not with us:
The Times learnt yesterday that Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s Sunni Vice-President, is forming a unit of the National Guard that will act as his personal bodyguard and fend off attacks against Addumiyah, a Sunni district surrounded by overwhelmingly Shia districts.
It will be the first official Sunni militia group and a counter to security forces that have been heavily infiltrated by Shia militias.
[…] A young Sunni from west Baghdad, who refused to be identified, said that recruiting had already started for Mr al-Hashemi’s group. The initial aim was to sign up 350 former army personnel who are to be trained as part of the Defence Ministry, which will also outfit and arm them. They were being offered $700 a month.
[…] One of the driving forces for the new militia, the Sunni source said, was the recent announcement by Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the head of one of the main Shia parties in government, of the planned formation of “public committees” to supervise neighbourhoods.
Many Sunnis fear that the committees will simply act as informants for Shia death squads.
The Sunni already have copious foreign financing, arms stockpiles and guerilla experience so a militia like this could serve as the nucleus for a much larger uniformed, sectarian force.
Picture the situation as it stands today: districts which are ethnically ‘clean’ and patrolled by uniformed, sectarian militias which have a deep, bloody animosity for one another. These uniformed militias will no doubt speed up the ethnic migrations from minority to majority regions, giving a positive feedback to Iraq’s slide towards chaos.
That means that we have an actual civil war, right? Not yet.
Step 3: The battle for land. In a civil war where one party wants to subjugate the other the contested ‘land’ amounts to the whole country, but I don’t think that is going on here. Rather the sects seem determined to pre-partition their country through intimidation and mutual migration, which means that when the real fighting comes the point will be to maximize each side’s geographic advantage in the final partition.
Eventually two factions will claim some seemingly-trivial piece of real estate which neither side wants to surrender by passive migration, say a sizable chunk of Baghdad, or the city of Baghdad itself, or an oil-rich patch of sand like Kirkuk. When that happens, and at this point it seems inevitable, the factional militias finally meet one another openly and work out who wants said patch of land more. The debate won’t end there, of course, and will grow to engulf every parcel of contested real estate and mixed-sect neighborhood in Iraq.
What does America do? What can America do? Inside Iraq we can do little to nothing. We keep most of our forces in Forward Operating Bases to reduce television stories about American casualties and cede daily security to the Iraqi forces, which most recognize not as peacekeepers but as sectarian agents themselves. If full-blown conflict breaks out we might as well get the hell out of Iraq rather than sit, bleed and lose our FOBs to resupply shortages (see here and here).
At the margins we can do plenty, and considering that we made this damned mess we have a no small obligation to do it. For the same reasons that neocons coveted Iraq like nothing else (it sits at the crossroads of the middle east!) an Iraqi split will draw a potentially dizzying array of players into the fight. Iran will both want to support their Shi’a allies and enter Kurdistan to put a lid on their Kurdish terrorist problem, where they will meet the Turkish army trying to do the same thing. Saudi Arabia will lend whatever support that it can to its Sunni allies and Jordan and Syria will have major border/refugee problems that may require mobilization of their own forces to deal with. We cannot allow this president to throw up his hands and walk away from this mess of his like he did with Harken energy and every other project with which he has ever been involved. If we do so it will not be his shame (the man is incapable) but ours.