Q&A: Conflict expert Roland Paris on whether Iraq is in a civil war
Last Updated Dec. 6, 2006
|Roland Paris is an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. He has been an adviser to the federal government on constitutional matters and Canada-U.S. relations. He is also the author of At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict, which has just won the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.|
Do words matter? You'd have thought they were sticks and stones last week after NBC News announced, somewhat portentously, that from here on it was going to be referring to the situation in Iraq as a "civil war." The White House fought back with every rhetorical gun blazing: The conflict in Iraq is not a civil war, it said, it is an armed insurgency fuelled by outsiders like al-Qaeda.
Then, as that initial bout was dying down, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan weighed in, telling the BBC that the world called the conflict in Lebanon a few years ago a civil war and that the situation in Iraq "is much worse."
Annan is leaving his post at the end of the year. So are his words meant to have any special meaning? Is it important, the way we refer to the insurgency and sectarian strife that is killing thousands of Iraqis every month?
CBC.ca asked University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, who has just won an international award for his recent book At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict.
Prof. Paris, why does it matter what we call all the violence in Iraq?
For ordinary Iraqis who are living in areas of deep insecurity, it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that their families are safe and survive. But the label does matter for politicians in Iraq and in the United States because it shapes the way the violence is perceived.
The definition is particularly salient in U.S. domestic politics because that is the main environment in which U.S. policy is being formed and because it has echoes of the terrible experience in Vietnam, which was another civil war. So it is one way in which political battles over the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq are being fought, through the use of language.
A civil war suggests a deeply rooted conflict that is self-perpetuating and for which there is no easy solution. And that's not the message that the White House or even the people in charge in Iraq want to convey. They want to frame the conflict as criminal or terrorist activity rather than a civil war.
It also matters for people who study peace and war because these analysts use definitions to distinguish different types of violence from each other. Without these different definitions and categories it is not really possible to understand important differences.
What people are saying about Iraq
"Given the level of violence, the level of killing and bitterness and the way that forces are arranged against each other, a few years ago, when we had the strife in Lebanon and other places, we called that a civil war; this is much worse."
— UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Dec. 4, 2006.
"There's a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al-Qaeda causing people to seek reprisal."
— U.S. President George W. Bush, Nov. 28, 2006.
"After careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war."
— NBC News anchor Matt Lauer, Nov. 27, 2006.
"The violence is not increasing. Iraq is not in a civil war. Iraq will never be in a civil war."
— Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Aug. 27, 2006.
"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."
— Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Aug. 3, 2006.
"There is a good deal of violence in Baghdad and two or three other provinces, and yet in 14 other provinces there's very little violence or numbers of incidents. So it's a highly concentrated thing. It clearly is being stimulated by people who would like to have what could be characterized as a civil war and win it, but I'm not going to be the one to decide if, when or at all."
— Donald Rumsfeld, July 25, 2006.
"We are losing each day an average of 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."
— former Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, March 19, 2006.
"What we've seen is a serious effort by [insurgents] to foment a civil war, but I don't think they've been successful."
— U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, March 19, 2006.
"We are far from a civil war. We are also heading toward a complete and comprehensive national accord [and] we will also form a national unity government soon."
— Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, March 19, 2006.
"It is a civil war. Twenty-five thousand insurgents are fighting with each other inside the country for supremacy. That's the definition of a civil war."
— Democratic Representative Jack Murtha, March 19, 2006.
Does a label such as civil war affect other world leaders?
There is a general perception that a civil war is a dire situation, which may be intractable. To characterize violence as civil war has political effects in that it portrays the violence as deeply rooted. Those who have an interest in downplaying the seriousness of the violence would not want it characterized as a civil war. While those who have an interest in highlighting the seriousness of the violence would.
Does this debate have any political salience in Europe?
Well it certainly does in Iraq because even the government of Iraq went out of its way to reject Kofi Annan's characterization of the violence as civil war. So it matters. It matters politically, it matters in U.S. domestic politics, it matters in relations the U.S. has with other countries and it matters to the government in Iraq.
Do you read any particular significance into what Kofi Annan said?
Well, he is a prominent person who said the situation is much worse than a civil war. What he's doing is drawing attention to the horrendous security situation in Iraq and he's doing this in a way that challenges those would like to downplay the violence.
His remarks have no special legal importance, not in themselves. The Security Council has special powers under the UN Charter to take action in case of "threats to international peace and security." Any situation can conceivably be designated as that kind of a threat and there is no special legal significance to the terms civil war in that context.
How would you classify the situation in Iraq?
I am not aware of any academic definition of civil war that would not classify Iraq right now as a civil war. Most definitions define civil wars as armed conflicts between the government of a sovereign state and domestic political groups that mount an effective resistance that amount in high numbers of deaths.
By that definition there is effectively a civil war taking place in Iraq. In fact, it is estimated there have been at least 30,000 civilian and military deaths because of the insurgency in Iraq and that is much more than the median number of deaths for all civil wars since 1945, which is approximately 18,000. And it is clearly an armed conflict between the government and domestic political groups.
A common sense definition of civil war, I think most people would see it that way and certainly the academic definitions would classify it that way as well.
Your book outlines some of the strategic mistakes that lead to the current situation in Iraq. What were they exactly?
One of the really critical ones was the lack of a sufficient security and police presence immediately after the U.S. invasion to fill the vacuum that appeared with the fall of the regime. The U.S. sent in a relatively small force into Iraq based on heroically optimistic assumptions of the kinds of conditions that would exist after the fighting.
The U.S. planners thought the invasion force would be greeted as liberators and that the police and army would join them. But in fact the police and army disintegrated, and the invasion was followed by looting and insecurity.
This was an avoidable mistake. The lessons of many previous post-conflict missions pointed to the need for a large police presence and how dangerous it is to allow civil violence to erupt in the immediate post-conflict period.
It was a decision that was very much driven by the then secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, and in that kind of environment where there was insufficient security forces to fill the vacuum the insecurity that was evident in the first week spiralled. It created tensions between the Sunni and Shia elements in Iraq and some in those groups turned to their own militias for self-defence. What followed was an escalating spiral of violence so that now there are several different conflicts going on in Iraq.
Is there any prescription for de-escalating these types of conflicts?
My work is really focused on how to transform a fragile ceasefire into a stable peace and not on the resolution of ongoing conflicts. But I would say that in the case of Iraq there is no happy and obvious solution. Most civil wars are ended in one of two ways: either by an outright victory by one side or by a negotiated settlement.
Negotiated settlements usually come about only after a long period of fighting and when there is rough military balance between the opposing sides. One of the conditions that has been identified for fostering negotiated settlement is when the parties reach what is called a "mutually hurting stalemate."
So if those are the two ways most civil wars are settled — either through outright victory or a mutually hurting stalemate — we're still pretty far away from reaching either of those two points.
- Main page
- Surviving Combat
- Hans Blix
- Iraq's 'civil war'
- Casualties in the Iraq war
- The lives lost in Iraq
- The Iraq Study Group report
- Saddam Hussein profile
- Trying Saddam
- Timeline: Iraq and the fall of Saddam
- Timeline of Saddam's trials
- Farewell letter
- Key politicians in the government