December 01, 2004

Civil War in Iraq (Already)?

Matthew Yglesias--seemingly largely based on the murder of some Kurds in Mosul by perpetrators beholden to an unholy alliance of fundamentalist radicals and Baathist restorationists--appears to have made up his mind that a civil war has already begun in Iraq (he also points, quite unconvincingly, to the fact that a police commander in Tikrit is blaming Israel and Iran for terror in Iraq as more evidence of a percolating civil war).

Matt's strongest point comes in this graf:

Thus, contrary to the Bush administration's hopes, elections themselves will not solve Iraq's problems. The trouble is not merely that some factions within Iraq are opposed to the very idea of democracy (though no doubt some are), but that what's at stake in these sorts of disputes is the very nature of the political community to be governed democratically. A community that might be quite happy to govern itself democratically still has no reason to support a conception of majoritarian democracy that will guarantee its own subordination to a larger community to which it happens to have been yoked by the mapmakers of the British Empire.

Unfortunately, in his rush to declare the existence of a civil war, Matt ignores a bunch of critical variables in his too pessimistic analysis:

1) Turkey will almost certainly never accept an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. This acts as a major break on Kurdish national aspirations. Thus, and for the foreseeable future, Kurds must be relatively 'good citizens' vis-a-vis helping to cobble together a federalistic Iraqi polity. This is one of the big reasons Kurdish leaders are, if not yet declaring it loudly to their publics, scaling back maximalist Kurdish national aspirations.

Money grafs:

Significantly, however, the tough bargaining and rhetoric during the TAL negotiations and the friction in Kirkuk mask a profound shift in Kurdish strategy that is yet to be broadcast and understood publicly. The top leadership of the two principal Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is offering Iraqi Arabs what amounts to an historic compromise: acceptance of an autonomous region as the maximum objective of the Kurdish national movement they represent and, even more importantly, a willingness, expressed in interviews with ICG, to abandon the exclusive claim to Kirkuk in favour of a sharing arrangement under which the city and governorate would receive a special status.

Regrettably, Kurdish leaders have yet to announce their decision or start preparing the Kurdish people for this profound and seemingly genuine strategic shift. Indeed, there is a growing discrepancy between what the Kurds want, what they say they want and what non-Kurds suspect they want. Given strong pro-independence sentiments in both the Kurdish region and Kurdish diaspora, they may encounter large-scale popular opposition to their plan at precisely the time -- the run-up to the constitutional process -- when they will need to persuade a sceptical Arab public, as well as neighbouring states such as Turkey, of their true intentions in order to realise even their reduced aspirations. For their part, Arab leaders have yet to lower their rhetoric and negotiate seriously with their Kurdish counterparts to preserve Iraq's unity by hammering out constitutional guarantees assuring Kurds that the atrocities of the past will not recur. [emphasis added]

Therefore, contra Matt, the Kurds will be (if not happy) utimately willing to play ball within the confines of "a conception of majoritarian democracy that will guarantee its own subordination to a larger community to which it happens to have been yoked by the mapmakers of the British Empire."

2) On the Shi'a angle, Matt sees myriad localized militias through the Shi'a south devoid of any loyalty to the national government of (Sunni friendly pace Matt!) Iyad Allawi and ready to spark a civil war at their earliest opportunity. Look, it would be foolish to think that the specter of large scale revanchist inter-communal violence spearheaded by the Shi'a against the Sunnis is negligible. Perhaps 300,000 Shi'a were killed at the hands of Saddam. The wounds are very real and very recent. But, again, Matt ignores some key factors, including the fact that there remains a sense of residual Iraqi nationalism among both Shi'a and Sunni (not Kurds, but they are stuck in a federal Iraq as fleshed out above).

Be sure to read this exchange between Les Gelb and Martin Indyk from a while back.


I think it's a fundamental mischaracterization of Iraq to say that it's been held together. The Shiites identify themselves as Iraqis, they fought Shiites in Iran, loyally, as Iraqis, for 10 years, and died in larger numbers than the Sunnis did. Yes, this was a state created by outside powers, as just about every state in the region has been created by outside powers, with the exception of, I think, Egypt. But, it's just a fundamental mischaracterization to say that this has only been held together by a strong man, and now we should basically take it apart, and return it to its natural state. The natural state that you seem to be describing never existed before.

3) Another issue Matt doesn't address is Baghdad. It's pretty much in the Sunni Triangle--yet is approximately 60% Shi'a. There is a long history of cohabitation across Shi'a and Sunni communities there. As it's the capital city and largest city in Iraq--this issue cannot simply be discounted as trivial. Keeping Baghdad from descending into chaos will act as a powerful incentive for community leaders to keep cross-ethnic relations on a pretty good keel.

4) Worth noting too, the army we are busy 'training and equipping' reflects Iraq's ethnic makeup. This army needs, er, a lot more training and equipping before it's ready for prime time. But, just maybe, it could end up proving a stabilizing factor two or so years hence--in terms of creating a national institution that could act to dampen the prospects of inter-ethnic/religious violence.

5) Finally, Matt needs to address (but doesn't) some of the efforts the U.S. will take to stave off a civil war. For one, we've got 140,000 troops on the ground and, again contra Matt's musings, I'm pretty confident that Bush will not declare some victory to assorted gaga red-staters after the Iraqi elections and, just like that, pull out. Rather, in my view, he's committed to creating a viable, if imperfect, democracy there. So, perhaps imperfect, but not a country on the brink of disintegrating into civil war. Indeed, John Negroponte will doubtless be navigating constitution-making from the sidelines trying to get such policy prescriptions in place:

While encouraging the devolution of power to regional and local levels, we should build up those institutions that would foster national cohesion and identity. In particular, maintaining a strong central role in the administration of Iraq's oil wealth would create an incentive for cross-ethnic collaboration. A professional national media will be indispensable to creating shared Iraqi images as well as enhancing the protection of minorities. Likewise, a new Iraqi state would greatly benefit from a strong central bank capable of regulating monetary policy, federal business and trade organs responsible for facilitating internal and external commerce, and a national army representative of the entire Iraqi populace.

Like some pessimists, and particularly given Saddam's brutality against the Shi'a and their feeling of historical disenfranchisement over hundreds and hundreds of years, I harbor fears that a horrific civil war could, of course, break out. As Les Gelb, a gentleman and all around great guy, put it in his debate with Indyk:

...this country is on the verge of civil wars. I think if you don't see that, and if you think that everybody considers themselves a happy Iraqi and there's no ethnic strife, then you're missing what's really happening in that country, and you're missing the tidal wave that's about to hit us. That's what I'm worried about. I want to act, based on these ethnic realities, and they are the underlying realities, before that tidal wave hits us. As soon as we begin to get out, these folks will start killing each other, unless we prepare for it in the way I describe.

Maybe. But I'm not going to prejudge the outcome. And I remain optimistic Iraq will remain a unitary state for some of the reasons I've sketched above. The Kurds aren't getting out of Dodge. Their leaders realize this--their hands are simply tied. The historic curse of statelessness for the Kurds will remain for a good while yet. Perhaps forever (whether we like it or not). Meanwhile, a good deal of Iraqi Shi'a are not necessarily totally in bed with the Iranians and do harbor some residual Iraqi nationalism. For this reason, among others, there are some areas where representatives of both communities can find common cause going forward. Yes, many Shi'a would love to engage in some score-settling with Sunnis. Yes, Zarqawi will do his damnedest to kill peshmerga and Shi'a to help set off a civil war. But our presence on the ground, likely needed for a minimum of four or so more years, maintained in concert with the creation of federalist governance structures and relatively robust national instutions (per Pollack's recommendations above and others)--could set the conditions for a viable polity that doesn't descend into Yugoslavian style carnage. Put simply, civil war can't simply be treated as a present-day reality or foregone conclusion.

More: Don't miss James Joyner and Total Information Awareness on this too. James seems to mostly agree with me; Eric crafts a middle position as between Matt and B.D. Both pieces are well worth reading.

Posted by Gregory at December 1, 2004 02:19 AM

The bad guys will do whatever they can between now and February to prevent an election.

A good election will deal a severe blow to them.

So things will get worse - WAY WORSE - before they get better.

But, for an OVERWHELMING majority of IRAQIS, a democratic nation will be a HUGE improvement: for the Shias and the Kurds.

And if it falls apart in a year or so... then we can let Kurdistan and the Shia south both secede.

WHAT'S TURKEY GONNA DO ABOUT IT!? We establish an alliance with the Kurds, and if Turkey attacks, then we whack them. Ditto Iran.

Now, don't get me wrong: the secession scenario is lousy - but it beats Saddamite Iraq - or Zarqawian Iraq, hands down.

A unified democratic republic of Iraq under a consitution is in everyone's interests EXCEPT Zarqawi and Saddam.

BOTTOM LINE: we MUST destroy them. Which we are doing. And there is NO CHANCE that we can fail.

They cannot be resupplied the way the Vietcong were by the USSR or like the Mujahadeen were by us.

It's just a matter of time - and our will.

I have NO DOUBT that Bush - and Allawi and Sistani and the Kurds have the will, too.

So... it's not really a matter of if the war ends victoriously for us and the Iraqis; it's a matter of when.

And that will be when we kill all the bad guys. And secure the borders.

If Syria and Iran won't secure their borders: we whack them, too.

That's all.

Posted by: reliapundit at December 1, 2004 05:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Meanwhile, a good deal of Iraqi Shi'a are not necessarily in love with the Iranians and do harbor some residual Iraqi nationalism. Yes, many Shi'a would love to engage in some score-settling with Sunnis."

What you re missing is that the key doesn't lie into Kurdish hands. The Kurds if their leaders are wise and they can get over the nationalist sentiment of their public (which they probably come) will move towards a power sharing arrangement with the Sunnis.

Negroponte's idea is excellent too. But you forget that the US tried to pass a version of that idea in the early rounds of the game, only to be rebuffed by Sistani who pressed for elections. Bremer reneged and probably rightfully so.

No. The key lies with the Shias. And the problem is that the SHias objectively have the numbers to impose their will and take the whole enchilada. In other words, the Shias may insist to a majoritarian democracy with no power-sharing arrangements; and when they face the inevitable Kurdish and Sunni reaction, they will probably use the legitimacy of the new parliament to impose their will by force.

The US might think to react in this case, especially since watching the Kurds getting screwed again will be bad, but it will also be bad and untenable to try and stop a civil war in which noone tolerates your presence.

Therefore, the really crucial variable lies in the type of leadership the Shias get out of this election. If it's risk adverse and possesses an idea of enlightened interest, perhaps it can offer an historic compromise with the Sunnis and the Kurds.If not, and that tends to happens in transitions to democracy it will press the situation with civil war being the inevitable conclusion.

Sistani is moderate and perhaps he can push toward a compromise, but what percentage of the parliament will he control?

All of this, leaves out of the equation two other ingredients.

1. The fact that there is a strong Shia religious element that's even more difficult to compromise its worldview with a more liberal part of Iraq in Kurdistan.

2. For the Sunnis, it's very possible that the best of many bad options is a civil war. Not only because the old regime elements and probably the vast majority of their population haven't abandoned the maximalist parts of their vision; or that they will be genuine losers in more than one ways by any new status quo that's, but because even if they wanted a compromise, they cannot be certain that the Shias are going to offer it.

Therefore in this kind of security dilemma and under this sort of complex politics that give an advantage to extremists, it's very difficult for a moderate faction to emerge and very likely that the Sunnis will pursue a civil war on an extension of the insurgency.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman at December 1, 2004 07:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Another thing to keep in mind is that, according to the Brookings Institution, a full 85% of the country plans on voting in the elections (including 82% of Sunnis). We hear quite a bit about the major political parties calling for electoral boycotts or postponements. What we don't hear is how miserably those calls are failing. Support for the democratic process, and optimism for the prospect of electing a new government, is overwhelming.

Posted by: Christopher at December 1, 2004 01:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We're simply not going to choose the Kurds over Turkey. Nor are we in the business of going around "whacking" people just because, reliapundit.

As for Greg's post, I agree that the case that Iraq is already embroiled in a civil war is thin at this point. But I'm not necessarily convinced by this post that it won't ramp up. Simply because Barzani and Talibani are acting rationally and understand the constraints upon them doesn't mean that the Kurdish people, imbued with nationalist fervor and military confidence, won't toss them over and find people who will fight for what they want: Kirkuk & independence. Additionally, it isn't clear to me that the US presence is the kind of stabilizing force that Greg describes. While the new Iraqi Army may _technically_ be diverse, from what I can tell it's the Sunnis who are deserting and the Badr and peshmerga folks who are sticking around to get their licks in. That's exactly what happened to the Lebanese Army, which became for all intents and purposes a Christian militia when the Druze, Shi'ites, and Sunnis all went their separate ways. And the two-year figure for competence is belied by anything I've ever read about how long it takes to train such a military that can stand on its own. Five is the low end as far as I am concerned, and it may be as many as ten. And so what can happen is that the US military could be forced into the position of propping up what seems like an Iraqi Army but is really a coalition of Shi'ite/Kurdish militias. And that doesn't strike me as a good thing.

Posted by: praktike at December 1, 2004 02:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree with Praktike on a couple of points:

First, if push comes to shove, we will abandon the Kurds to the Turks. To believe otherwise, while perhaps noble, is naive. Turkey represents a strategic alliance of tremendous importance, whereas the Kurds are of minimal long term value (at least when compared to Turkey).

Not to mention the fact that an attack on Turkey would be a major operation that would require a massive military commitment. It is easy to say things like "whack 'em" but in reality, policy is not made thusly, and for good reason. Turkey is not Iraq, and the fight back would be bitter. Victory would come at an enormous cost, and would require a nation building effort that would make Iraq look like a stroll in the park.

I am sure every effort would be made to diplomatically stave off Turkish interference, including possible threats, but if they call our bluff we will not up the ante.

Praktike also is right to note, with concern, the current makeup of the Iraqi armed forces. While ethnically diverse in theory, and to some degree in practice, indications are that the troops most likely to defect to the insurgency or desert their posts are Sunnis. This leaves behind an ethnically polarized contingent which could be a harbinger of things to come. From what I understand, the Iraqi troops used in the most recent Fallujah siege were mostly Kurds, as Sunnis were not employed given the results the last time Sunnis were trusted with securing Fallujah.

I also think it is premature to say that civil war is upon us, but the future is precarious to say the least. These situations have a tendency of spiraling out of control, and moderate and calming voices can be quickly drowned out by more strident and confrontational ones. We need Sistani, and we need him to take an enlightened and generous position in terms of power sharing. Even then, we also need moderate Sunni and Kurdish leaders who can maintain the support of their respective populations as they attempt to follow Sistani's lead, assuming he charts such a course in the first place which is not guaranteed.

Posted by: Eric Martin at December 1, 2004 04:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't understand why Reliapundit's remarks re whacking Turkey are even being debated. Both Turkey and the US are NATO members and that means any dispute regarding the Kurdish question will be dealt with politically. A US attack on Turkey, carried out by US military assets based in ....Turkey?, would in effect end the NATO alliance; and whilst I doubt that the other NATO members would fulfill their treaty obligations to Turkey ( ie come to their aid militarily against the US ), it would throw up some "interesting" dilemmas.

On a more sobre note, I wish people like Reliapundit would stop suggesting that military gangsterism offers any real and enduring solution to complex political problems. Perhaps the US should whack Mexico for letting all those darned illegal immigrants across the border.

Posted by: dan at December 1, 2004 05:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't understand why Matthew Yglesias gets so much linkage.

Posted by: jd at December 1, 2004 07:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If you don't like Matt Yglesias, how about the Jamestown Foundation?

Posted by: praktike at December 2, 2004 12:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Matthew can SOMETIMES be convinced to listen to reason. The Kos types are just TOTALLY INSANE.

Posted by: leaddog2 at December 2, 2004 04:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I just noticed the Blog Clock is WAY off. It is 10:19 P.M. Now NOT 4:17 A.M.

Posted by: leaddog2 at December 2, 2004 04:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree with your comments about the Kurds of Iraq. Please note, they have actually been very good and restrained in recognition of their need to balance autonomy with participation.

Posted by: David M. McClory at December 2, 2004 05:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wonder if some of the same people who are now running around screaming "The sky is falling! The Iraqis are about to start slaughtering each other in a civil war!" are the same people who were running around back in April screaming "The sky is falling! The Iraqis are about to gang up on us in a nationwide Sunni-Shi'ite revolt!"

The fears of a combined Sunni-Shi'ite revolt were wildly overblown back then, just as I suspect the fears of a civil war are overblown today.

But there will be those who will tear their hair out over such concerns, especially if they seem to offer a launching pad from which to shoot spitballs at the Bush administration (which is pretty much all that Matt Yglesias is about anyway).

Posted by: Phil in VA at December 2, 2004 12:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Phil in VA: I'm one of those who does think Iraqis are on the verge of slaughtering eachother in a civil war. I think quite a lot has deteriorated since April, when it seemed to me that the signs of Sunni-Shi'a collaboration boded well for the country, if not the occupation. The prospect of an Iraq unified against the American occupation is much more reassuring than the prospect of Iraqis fighting against eachother, some with American aid. In the former case we have a much clearer exit strategy - Iraqis could, for instance, vote in a government in January who's primary interest is expelling us. In the latter case, which looks to be the case, we're looking at a much longer and more costly entanglement with Iraq.

Dan: I agree with you that there's absolutely no need to debate a possible American-Turkish fight. For this is predicated upon an American alliance with the Kurds, and this is far from reality. True, right now the Kurds are participating in the American alliance with the Iraqi Shi'a, but this looks like a marriage of convenience, from which the Kurds are getting diminishing returns. If the Iraqi Kurds to declared independence or attempted to ethnically cleanse Kirkuk, either of which would prompt a Turkish military response and even invasion, it would have been preceeded by a split with the Iraqi (Shi'ite) government. And I can see no reason why the Americans wouldn't pick sides and support the Iraqi government actively, and Turkey passively. Remember that we allowed Turkey to bomb PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Nineties. Helping the Kurds was always at the bottom of the list of war rationales.

Posted by: PH Chaffee at December 2, 2004 08:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

PH Chaffee,

Something to add regarding our exit strategy: I would point out that despite the lack of Sunni/Shiite unity, there is a good deal of rhetoric emanating from the Shiia community that seems to indicate that they expect us to leave shortly after the elections (even though I think we should stay to maintain the relative peace for years going forward):

Liz Sly from the Chicago Tribune:

"This election, for me, will be the happiest moment in my life, because it means we will end the occupation," said Ahmad al-Asadi, who sells mobile phones from a little store alongside the Kadhimiya mosque, a Shiite shrine.

That's how Shiite leaders are pitching the vote: as a chance to end America's military presence in Iraq peacefully, through the ballot box.

And Rory McCarthy from the Guardian:

"We are pushing the government and the political parties very hard so that we can have elections on time," said Jawad al-Maliki, a cultural historian who spent 25 years living in exile and is a senior figure in the large Islamic Dawa party.

"We feel very strongly that this crisis - the coalition forces, the corruption - is all happening because there are no elections in Iraq"...

"We want to take the Americans out of our country through negotiations, not by fighting," said its political leader, Nadeem al-Jabbery, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.

"If we don't have elections or an elected government then the Americans will stay and our problems will continue."

If expectations of our imminent exit are built up too much, it may be difficult to maintain Shiite support for our presence after the election if we stick around indefinitely.

Posted by: Eric Martin at December 2, 2004 09:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sorry if I bust any of your bubbles, but we will be there for at least 10 years and we WILL BE INVITED to stay. The Iraqis are NOT stupid. They know they will be overrun by Iran otherwise.

The Iraq government will TOTALLY CONTROL their own oil, but they NEED OUR HELP to get production up to par. That will take some time and it will be awhile before we can leave.

Believe it or not, the Iranian Shia and Iraqi Shia do have major disagreements (and NOT with the U.S.)

Posted by: leaddog2 at December 3, 2004 01:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

online pokertexas holdem poker

Posted by: texas holdem at December 13, 2004 06:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Always Thoughtful"
--Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
Think Tanks
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by