It’s a Duck: The Iraq Civil War

It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it really sounds like a duck.

Yesterday’s Washington Post editorial, “What Next?” gave a grim assessment of how a civil war in Iraq could explode into a regional conflict in the Middle East. Iraq has all of the necessary ingredients of a civil war: a growing tendency to identify with religious and ethnic groups rather than the Iraqi nation-state, valuable resources spread unevenly throughout the country, a growing perception that democracy does not reflect regional interests, and daily news of increasing civilian casualties.

A broader civil war would likely produce Iraqi refugees who could export the Iraqi conflict to neighboring countries. As we have seen in the recent Lebanon-Israel conflict, these neighboring states are willing to fund proxies such as Hezbollah, if not to intervene directly. The authors note that the foundation for a regional war could already be in place:

U.S. military and Iraqi sources think there are several thousand Iranian agents of all kinds already in Iraq…. Iran has set up an extensive network of safe houses, arms caches, communications channels and proxy fighters, and will be well-positioned to pursue its interests in a full-blown civil war.

Although Bush administration officials acknowledge privately that things are not going according to plan, Bush said publicly today that Americans “have to understand the consequences of leaving Iraq before the job is done.”

We’ve done a heck of a job so far. Insecurity has left the Iraqi economy in shambles making it easier for insurgents to find new recruits. One-fifth of the population is in poverty. Oil production is still 11% below pre-war production levels. Unemployment is as high as 40% in some regions, and inflation is rampant.

Iraq also has a serious brain drain that leaves little human capital with which to rebuild. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, 2,000 doctors have been murdered, and another 12,000 have fled the country. Internal displacement is also a growing problem: 200,000 Sunni Arabs have been displaced from western Iraq and up to 100,000 Shiites have fled cities to take refuge in the south.

Civilian deaths increased by nine percent from June to July, and have almost doubled since January, 2006. One of the more disturbing trends is that as violence has increased in Iraq, it has also become increasingly brutal.

When do we recognize this as a civil war? In the editorial “What Next?” Laura Stanton of the Washington Post produced a graphic that applied the percentage of deaths and displaced persons from recent civil wars to the current population of Iraq. Statastic used this data to gain further insight into the average number of deaths per month during these civil wars.

So how severe are the 3,438 civilian deaths reported in July, 2006? On a per capita basis, this is nearly 50% more deaths per month than averaged during the Croatian civil war. If violence in Iraq were to increase at the same rate that it increased between January and July of 2006, there would be more than 450 deaths per day in Iraq by July, 2007. This is about the same rate as the Kosovo war, but with one critical difference: Iraq’s population is 14 times larger. We would need as much as four times the current financial and military resources to quell a civil war, requiring as many as 450,000 soldiers. And that says nothing of how we would stop a regional conflict.

If a civil war does erupt into a regional war, Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack note that history is not on our side:

No country in recent history has successfully managed the spillovers from a full-blown civil war; in fact, most attempts have failed miserably.

Much as Americans may want to believe that the United States can just walk away from Iraq should it slide into all-out civil war, the threat of spillover from such a conflict throughout the Middle East means it can’t.

It’s time to acknowledge the Iraqi insurgency for what it is: a civil war. Quack.

Average Monthly Deaths in Recent Civil wars

Sources: Washington Post (primary sources cited include Amnesty International, Center for Study of Civil War, CIA World Factbook, Richard Holbrooke’s “To End a War”, World Bank); PBS Frontline map.

Notes: *The estimate for July, 2007 applies the rate of doubling in civilian deaths that occurred during the 6 months between January and July, 2006.

The average monthly deaths were calculated by applying the death rate per capita in each country’s civil war to the population of Iraq. This was then divided by the length of the each civil war. The monthly average was calculated using whole years for these conflicts. In other words if a civil was started in December of 2000 and ended in January 2001, its duration would counted as two years, not two months.

Why the lack of precision? Because using the monthly average of deaths during a civil war is an imperfect measure to begin with. Civil conflicts often hinge on a single event that may not have many civilian deaths (such as the February 22, 2006 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra), or a monthly average may understate the brutality of a shorter campaign (such as the 800,000 who were murdered in Rwanda over the course of 100 days).

This measure is only meant to lend an international comparison to the debate about what constitutes a civil war.