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Averting Civil War in Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
August 10, 2006


Throughout much of Iraq's postwar period, Shiite restraint was largely what prevented the country from sliding into civil war. Despite an onslaught of increasingly destructive insurgent attacks by Sunni Arabs, most Shiite clerical and political leaders urged caution. They feared disrupting the democratic process because, from a demographic standpoint, it clearly favored Shiite parties. The February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, however, marked the turning point when Shiite militias responded with proportional force and violence became more sectarian. General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Congress August 3 that Iraq was teetering on the precipice of civil war (IHT). Civilian casualties now top one hundred per day.

But if Iraq enters the grips of civil war, what does that mean for U.S. policy? More U.S. troops could be sent in or forces could be scaled back, a move which might force Iraq's feuding ethnic groups to broker some form of peace. Or perhaps troops could be reassigned to danger zones like Baghdad, which some analysts have likened to a "whack-a-mole" strategy. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot prefers deploying more troops, not fewer "if we are to have any hope of averting the worst American military defeat since Vietnam."

The nomenclature of the current conflict has vexed U.S. officials (Newsweek), who long referred to the enemy as "dead-enders" or "Saddamists," terms that suggest a fly-by nuisance that goes away with time and political progress within the Green Zone. Even the term "insurgency" implied a messy situation involving a Vietnam-like commitment. Insurgencies are not won on the battlefield, military experts say, and typically drag on for at least a decade. "The insurgents and the regime compete for the allegiance of a common pool of citizens, who could, in principle, take either side," wrote CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle in Foreign Affairs.

Now Iraq is approaching, if not embroiled in, what Biddle would call a "communal civil war." Yet the trouble with this nomenclature, writes Chris Weigant of the Huffington Post blog, is "[i]f everyone starts calling Iraq a civil war, it will be proof that the U.S. has utterly failed in its mission to create a stable Iraqi democracy." It also muddles the mission, writes Harold Meyerson in a Washington Post op-ed. "[T]he role of American soldiers in an intra-Islamic conflict is impossible to plausibly articulate," he says. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress is more succinct: "You can't win a civil war" (CSMonitor).

Senator John Warner (R-VA) has said he may press Congress to vote again for a resolution before authorizing U.S. troops to become entangled in an all-out civil war (LAT). Others, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, favor dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. "There is no good solution to the mess in Iraq," he wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune. "The country has broken up. The United States cannot put it back together again and cannot stop the civil war."

This International Crisis Group offers some prescriptions for resolving the civil conflict, while Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute urges the United States to deploy the right kinds of forces, including "linguists, intelligence and civil affairs specialists, and military police." All experts emphasize the need to secure Baghdad, which has emerged as the least secure quarter in Iraq. Yet as the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony H. Cordesman points out, "Securing Baghdad won't win, but losing Baghdad will lose."

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