Is it civil war or sectarian strife?
The escalation in killing in Iraq over the past month makes some people think that the dreaded worst-case scenario of civil war has come to pass. In Sunday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer ridicules that fear, saying that it has been a civil war since at least 2004, except that only one side (the Sunnis) was actively engaged until recently. He observes:
Now all of a sudden everyone is shocked to find Iraqis going after Iraqis. But is it not our entire counterinsurgency strategy to get Iraqis who believe in the new Iraq to fight Iraqis who want to restore Baathism or impose Taliban-like rule? Does not everyone who wishes us well support the strategy of standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down? And does that not mean getting the Iraqis to fight the civil war themselves?
Maybe so. For Krauthammer, the main thing is to prevent the militiamen loyal to vicious extremists like Moqtada al-Sadr from infiltrating the police and army forces. As long as that can be managed, there will come a time when most Sunnis decide that their lives would be better off if they cooperate with local authorities and security forces than with the terrorists. The war will end only gradually, as political agreements are reached at the provincial and local levels. The United States will have only limited influence over this process, which in any case will probably escape most Americans' notice as the violence recedes.
At Strategy Page, Jim Dunnigan makes a distinction between sectarian strife and civil war, which is very appropriate when you look at the facts. Most of the recent killings are motivated by revenge, feudalistic clan vs. clan, and there is no indication that they are part of a coordinated strategy. The absence of a strategic goal behind the brutal killings is not necessarily a "good" thing, but it does help to understand that the road ahead may not be as difficult as it sometimes seems. Iraq has a lot of pent-up anger and resentment from the decades of dictatorial rule by Saddam Hussein, and this potential force was bound to be released eventually, one way or the other. If Iraq does get as bad as Lebanon was in the late 1970s, with constant mortar fire and well-defined zones of control, then the United States would have to contemplate taking sides to resolve the issue. Otherwise, we would have to back out of urban patrol duties, and hope that one or both sides becomes weary or war sooner rather than later.
Amidst the terrible loss of life among the Iraqi people, one bright note should be mentioned: The number of American war deaths this month (currently 24) will probably be the lowest for any month since February 2004. It will almost certainly mark the fifth consecutive month of declining U.S. war fatalities in Iraq.
If all one reads is the headlines, pessimism about the war is certainly understandable, but some people are getting carried away. Gary Hart, whom I once admired as a crusader for military and economic reform, recently opined in the Huffington Post that the U.S. Army in Iraq was headed for a defeat of the same historic magnitude as Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. To put all the current commentary in perspective, Gateway Pundit reviews some of the astonishingly and otherwise wrong previous estimates of the course the war would take. (via Instapundit). To me, what is interesting that three years into the war the overall balance of opinion on the war's likely outcome has not changed very much. It's as if the facts are irrelevant. When the war began, I considered myself "guardedly optimistic" about victory. At various points I've become slightly more upbeat (optimistic) or downbeat (uncertain) in response to the changing fortunes of war, and am now "guardedly optimistic" once again.