Global Issues

Civil war or internal armed conflict?

Lots of recent talk (again) about whether Iraq is a civil war. In part, fuelled by the following exchange (DoD link down):

Q: Is the country closer to a civil war?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I don’t know. You know, I thought about that last night, and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different.

But is it really this subjective? There is a relatively established academic discourse on civil war – as a word, a phrase, and what constitutes it. Surely it can tell us something?

I have had the good fortune of doing my requisite year of IR data coding (in my case counting the rivers that cross every international border) at the Center for the Study of Civil War at PRIO. Along with SPIRI, they are responsible for compiling the data sets used for large-N studies of inter and intra state conflict. By the standard coding definition a civil war is an internal conflict that results in at least 1,000 combat-related fatalities, 5% of which are sustained by government and rebel forces. Another definition puts the bar at 25.

These thresholds have of course long been surpassed in Iraq. If this is the case though, then why haven’t we been calling this a civil war for the past two years?

Several months ago, I asked this of an old colleague who is far better versed in the discourse than I. A particularly interesting response from a particularly wise Norwegian is worth quoting:

What we see in Iraq is absolutely an armed internal conflict, but it is not a war. By drawing this distinction I want to separate between two modes of political violence: Civil War is actively pursuing an ultimate objective, in this case the government of Iraq, through all means available, and Armed conflict, as we see now, is a political conflict where the careful appliance of violence is useful in order to signal resolve and in order to temporarily avoid some sort of outcome.

By this characterization, he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an armed conflict rather than a war. Iraq, by this measure, should therefore be considered not a civil war, but an Internal Armed Conflict. This can of course evolve as the interest of various parties emerge, and it perhaps already has.

While there are political/strategic reasons for and against labeling Iraq as a particular type of conflict, these labels, as used in academia, are relatively well established. Because the Iraqi conflict does not look like the US civil war, is a pretty silly defense for not calling a spade a spade, or at least something that looks quite similar to a spade…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *