Reporting from Baghdad: Why Hasn't There Been a Civil War?

News Abroad

Mr. Miller is author of Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as well as A Carrier at War: Shock and Awe Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (Potomac Books, 2005). He is Military Affairs Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service.

Baghdad, Iraq. Most observers agree that the low intensity struggle now being waged between various Iraqi sectaries has certain earmarks of a civil war. However one chooses to describe this war, a full-blown civil war it is not—at least not yet. In the last fifteen years at least two conflicts merited the term civil war— Bosnia and Rwanda. One distinguishing metric for both was the corpse count. A genuine civil war will usually enlist broad numbers of combatants on all sides, producing casualties that eventually climb into multiple six figures. Thus far the violence in Iraq, while sometimes spectacular (e.g., the destruction of the Al-Askariya mosque), has thus far failed to produce this larger scale violence and death.

The question briefly considered here is why overt civil war has not consumed Iraq.

Aside from having a will to fight, there are other preconditions required for modern civil wars. One of the most important is the presence of outsiders willing to arm, finance, or otherwise encourage the combatants. Even in Rwanda, where Hutu butchery was carried out by low-tech means, outsiders (especially Zaire) played a critical role in supplying even these. “The influx of weapons from foreign sources to the Rwandese government as well as to the RPF [the Tutsi guerilla group] contributed significantly to the civil war during 1990-1994, as well as to the massacres in 1994,” notes the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. What was true of Rwanda was doubly so in the (somewhat) more even civil war that gripped Bosnia. There, Bosnian Serbs were armed and supported by Serbia; Bosnian Muslims, who at first suffered from the lopsided effects of the Western arms embargo, were eventually supplied by Muslim states and “charities,” thus evening the contest, albeit too late for many civilians.

Looking at Iraq today and after conversations with many Iraqis, I have concluded that the immediate prospects for a full-blown civil war are remote. Before considering outsiders who stand ready to aid various factions in Iraq, one must look at the existing play of Iraqi militia. On a recent trip through Sadr City I observed the most prominent militia group, the Mahdi Army (the largest and best organized militia), discretely lodged in alleyways and doorways, allowing the red-bereted Iraqi Security Forces the most visible, albeit only symbolic, street roles. However, at present—and this is true for most militia in Iraq—the Mahdi Army’s function is primarily defensive—to provide security against Sunni jihadis and militia, and common criminals. Current sectarian militia violence (as opposed to personal vendettas or the work of criminal gangs) seems to be of the “tit-for-tat” variety, in which the leadership bleeds off the anger of more extreme constituents (as well as establishing legitimacy by demonstrating responsiveness) by permitting the minimal amount of revenge killing following each episode of violence. Thus far, the Shia militia are not sufficiently organized, armed or equipped to wage an offensive war against Sunnis, a necessary precondition to full scale civil war.

One reason seems to be a general reluctance by most Iraqis to cross the brink. Iraq has been at war off and on for a quarter century and the war weariness of the population, further squeezed by the sanctions of the 1990s, cannot be overstated. There is another factor (which for now) seems to be equally prominent—the absence of outside sponsors.

This may seem striking given the amount of ink spilled (and real evidence) of the entry of foreign jihadis coming across Syrian and Saudi borders, as well as Iranian supplied small arms, organizers and agent-provocateurs working in Shiite areas.

But homicide bombers, small arms, and foreign agents are insufficient to produce the military conditions required for major hostilities between sectaries. For one thing, unlike Rwanda, where the victims were overwhelmingly civilians, many Iraqi males of all ethnicities have at least some military experience. This means that there is no “low-hanging fruit” of any sectary population readily available for massacre. Moreover, unlike Bosnia there is no current imbalance in the distribution of small arms and explosives. Saddam’s weapons caches were so widely distributed (and have likely been redistributed since) that groups of every stripe have some means to defend themselves. In short, there is something like a stand-off. To paraphrase an old saying of the American West, “God created men, but in Iraq, Mikhail Kalashnikov made them equal.” And the only outside force currently and overtly intervening in Iraq is the American military, which stands as an implicit guarantor of the peace.

As noted, the other major outside player is Iran. As long as Americans are present, the Iranians will be unwilling to provide significant, offensive, military assistance to their Shia co-religionists. Examples of major assistance might include armored vehicles, air assets, and substantial support and logistical trains, all of which would prove more vulnerable to border interdiction than the current reported smuggling of small numbers of shaped IEDs. But the principal reason for Iranian reluctance is the presence of U.S. forces. Even were the U.S. to tolerate importing such weapons (highly unlikely) the risks of spillover—cases where overtly Iranian-armed militia attacked Coalition or ISF forces—would provoke a swift and painful American response. Iranian planners may well remember that even Richard M. Nixon, waging an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, did not hesitate to “invade” Cambodia for the purpose of interdicting NVA communications. In brief, while the U.S. may or may not choose force to retard the Mullah’s efforts to join the nuclear club, it will surely use overwhelming force to protect its army.

Moreover, whatever Iran and its Shia clients elect to do, they are both aware that the Sunnis are not without friends in the region—friends who, as demonstrated in both 1990s Bosnia and 1980s Afghanistan, proved eager to arm their co-religionists. Iran is certainly noisier than Saudi Arabia, but the latter would be expected to arm their fellow Sunnis in Iraq and given their shared and very porous border, could do so on short order.

In summary, the situation is static, for now. For U.S. policymakers, the longer term issue is the minimum force level required in Iraq to keep the peace. Will a barebones U.S. presence, constituting something of a tripwire, suffice? Or does keeping the peace entail a more substantial presence, which threatens immediate, within-the-hour consequences to any party in breach? Because of the nexus between outsiders and civil wars, I would argue that U.S. force levels in Iraq should be at a level sufficient to continue ISF training (irony of ironies, the ISF may eventually become the most reliable Iraqi institution) as well as constitute a “tripwire” presence in key areas distributed throughout the ethnic Iraq. For the present other U.S. forces should be discretely stationed in such border-states as Turkey, Kuwait, and Jordan. They would remain available to return to the existing in-country bases, but largely out of harm’s way. In short, this proposal is a limited version of Cong. Jack Murtha’s, although motivated by a different set of concerns.

Numbers are tricky and, outside of the Pentagon’s inner counsels, little more than barely educated guesses. But guessing there has been, and when considering the objectives of this essay, Baghdad “buzz” suggests that in one year, U.S. forces in Iraq may range between 60,000 and 80,000, down from the current 140,000.

Whatever one thinks about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, American policy was always about the “neighborhood” as well as the country—in the 1980s, when the U.S. briefly backed Saddam because of concerns about Iran; in 1990, when Bush 41 decided to roll back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in order to reassure Gulf Arabs that their oil was safe; in 2003, when the overthrow of Iraq’s dictatorship was largely intended to destabilize the region to implant a democratic model side-by-side with existing autocracies, strong men, outright dictatorships and faux democracies like Iran where voters’ choices lie somewhere between abysmally low turnouts or choosing from a list of Mullah-approved parties.

Therefore, to gauge the likelihood of a genuine civil war occurring in Iraq one must look as much to Teheran, Riyadh, and Washington as well as Baghdad. Sectarian hatred may be necessary to fuel a civil war; but militarily speaking, it is not sufficient. And at least for the moment in Iraq, without the deliberate and massive connivance of outsiders, a genuine civil war is not in the offing.

For those who prefer domestic analogies, instead of Fort Sumter, think Kansas-Nebraska, 1854.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Interesting stuff, and certainly relevant if tangential to the discussion.

By the way, what would it cost the Iranians to deploy these 122mm rockets with all the fancy homing stuff and capable of pinpoint accuracy up to ten miles, but assembled by 7-12 year old girls, not in "unlimited numbers" (which would of course be an unlimited cost) but, let us say, in quantities comparable to what they used in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war? Total costs, including paying smugglers to procure the raw materials, and deseminate the final product?

My impression is that this kind of thing, though declining in price, is still more expensive than you imply.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I agree that there is no civil war in Iraq (yet), but it strikes me as a bit overstated and inconsistent to (a) denounce "one-size-fits-all" definitions of civil war, while (b) insisting that "the presence of outsiders supporting the combatants" is a "sine quo non for these conflicts."

Who were the significant outsiders in the wars in Biafra (1960s), East Timor (1990s), the 1947 civil war in Paraguay, or -for that matter- the mother of all "modern civil wars", the U.S. Civil War?

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The pattern continues. I ask a question, and receive another fascinating installment of your never-ending lecture on the amazing power of technological change which, however, does not address the question. Once again here, you offer up a half dozen reasons why Iraq insurgents should be blowing up U.S. tanks and planes from ten miles away at will, but do not explain why that is NOT happening.

By the way, I never said anything like "why where there no machine guns at Agincourt," because you did not claim that machine guns were a 13th century technology. You did however make some remark about cheap precision computer guided missiles being "1960s technology". Thus my wondering why they were not used by small gangs in the 1970s, '80s, or '90s.

The Pentagon trying to "shoot" an "idea" is an interesting concept. A very plausible conjecture given a brainy DOD head with lots of ideas, but much too arrogance to listen to any mere general with combat experience. Now he apparently thinks he he's Henry Stimson about to send Ike across the Rhine for the final victory over the Nazis, and being hampered only by a few wobbly pacifists at home who are taking fright due to the Battle of the Bulge. I seem to recall, however, Bin Laden's voice on at least one Al Jazeera tape talking quite specifically about events (such as bombings in Madrid or London) that happened well AFTER Tora Bora. Better recalibrate that variant of the theory.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Much interesting stuff again, Mr. Todd, but it does not add up to a convincing practical near term concern. There is difference between whiz bang gadgetry and effective tools.

Precise guided missiles able to hit targets 10 miles away, at only a hundred bucks each? This seems rather unlikely, at least at first blush. Why were no such devices used by Saddam in the first Gulf War, or in the Balkans wars, or in Afghanistan, or by Hamas, or in Iraq NOW? What do you know that the rest of the world doesn't, and why are talking about it publicly if this is the case?

Something must be missing from the equation. Perhaps a disconnection between theoretical possibilities, and practical malfunction probabilities? Or maybe pinpoint accuracy of dirt cheap missiles is of little use without gazillion dollar air or satellite surveillance systems capable of properly identifying the targets in the first place? Maybe the potential firers would want to be at least as accurate as the U.S. military which all too often blows up schools, Chinese embassies, wedding parties, and its own soldiers? And since they are in fact nowhere near as accurate as the often inaccurate Pentagon, they decide not to just blow things up randomly, and concentrate instead on roadside booby traps and the like which are effective?

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

I read an interesting new term today for the current condition of unabated sectarian violence in Iraq...

'Domestic Macromurder'

Two or more groups within a defined boundary engage in massive killings of members of one or more of the other groups.

Hopefully, this term doesn't catch on as quickly as 'truthiness'.

J. Feuerbach - 3/21/2006

A civil war has been avoided in Iraq.


So all ye prophets of doom, please stop breaking other people's cojones with this topic and move on with your lives.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/20/2006

I don't know Mr. Todd whether you driving you idea towards the justification of the US so-called "pre-emptive" future strikes against any (non-friendly in the sole interpretation of the US goverment and pre-paid "experts") country that might have more or less sophisticated military technology or something else, but the fact remains that even the mosty conservative and hawkish of those mentioned admit that this country has by far the best and most advanced and powerful military technology, equipment and weapons, its real or artificially created by propaganda enemies can only expect to possess, at the best, 10 years from now, and even then in a negligible amount, and consequently - consequences - for the security and
national interests of the US.

Andrew D. Todd - 3/19/2006

RE Bin Laden's messages: Well, the same comments apply to sound tracks as to pictures. A low quality recording doesn't give the forensics people much scope to say either that it is the man, or that it is not the man. Bin Laden is just rich enough that I cannot see him using twenty dollars worth of recording equipment instead of ten thousand dollars worth unless the precise purpose was to produce an ambiguously low-quality result. There are, I gather, programs you can run on a PC which do for sound tracks pretty much what Photoshop does for pictures. Suppose a team of ten people spent a month "massaging" a recording, and then blurred it down to simulate a cheap tape recorder. In the nature of things, Al Quada has access to more and better Bin Laden material than anyone else. If they work over a "release" until they can't tell that it is a forgery anymore, then outsiders are unlikely to be able to spot anything. Electronic documents have the same kind of complex provenance problems that early medieval documents have. Medievalists worry about whether or not a sixth-century document has ninth-century interpolations, that kind of thing. Of course, Bin Laden, or the person speaking in his name, is not interested in convincing a sophisticated critic, but rather in stirring up a lot of wretched peasants who don't make that kind of subtle distinction.

I intended to say that guided missiles per se were sixties technology. At the time, of course, they cost millions. But that was because the underlying components, such as computers, cost millions. Remember, a tenfold difference in price is the difference between the easily affordable and the completely unaffordable, in a given situation. When the preconditions are right, a period of a couple of years can so basically change the rules as to render all precedents irrelevant. When you have a technology expanding at a Moore's law rate, you cannot necessarily expect prior warning of its political implications. The technology may outrun the political adaptations to the technology, until an explosive situation develops. If you look at the battle of Midway, in 1942, there was about a one or two year window during which the battle could have happened in anything like the way it did. Before that, radars and kindred equipment were not good enough; after that, they were too good. Think about the Rodney King beating. The technology underlying home video cameras was getting cheaper rapidly, but the affluent "early adopters" were all the kind of people who would tend to avoid the kind of places where the police do things the hard way. When the two worlds finally touched, the interaction was explosive. In a day's time, the street policeman's world changed. There was no warning.

Iran has a functioning government. The Iraqi insurgency does not. This means that Iran will be able to recruit suitably skilled people first, etc. It also means that what munitions Iran produces will not simply flow into battle because they are there. Iran will make a political decision about what to hand over to the Iraqi insurgents, and when. Saddam Hussein allowed the Iraqi people to empty out the armories because invasion was imminent, or actually occurring. The last act of an expiring government is to arm the populace. For what it is worth, Japan launched its attack on December 7, 1941 because a careful calculation of Japan's declining oil supplies had convinced the Japanese government that this was as long as they could afford to wait, in search of a peace treaty. Very probably, Iran has its own internal calculations about when it will have to send the "special weapons" across the border, "after which things will happen automatically."

I do not know precisely what the triggering conditions are, but a year is a long time in terms of electronics. The attitude that "...the status quo will last out my time," and that the implications of Moore's Law need not drive present policy, is dangerous.

Carl Becker - 3/19/2006

"Iraq's former interim prime minister said the increasing attacks across his country can only be described as a civil war, and that the United States and Europe could be touched by spreading violence, according to an interview aired Sunday."

"It is unfortunate that we are in civil war. We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more," Ayad Allawi told the British Broadcasting Corp. "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

Andrew D. Todd - 3/18/2006

Succinctly, Moore's Law. More or less annual doublings in performance. 2^15 = 32K-fold improvement since 1990. You might as well ask why there were no machine guns at Agincourt, in 1415. Put another way, the computers sitting on my desk at this moment (one for Windows, one for Linux) are approximately as powerful as the entire University of Cincinnati Computer Center in the year 1984. My maximum year of computer expenditure was 1989 in nominal dollars, 1984 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the 1950's my parents held military security clearances (top secret and confidential) to program giant government computers which had about 4K of memory (mercury delay line). That is inferior to the cheapest pocket calculator you can buy at a K-Mart. According to my father, the General and the Admiral fought incessantly over whose computer it was, not just as individuals, but as representatives of the Army and the Navy.

To correct you slightly, the hundred bucks does not include the rocket, but the insurgents already have that-- it's already paid for. The hundred bucks goes for a device which does some calculations and twists two small steering fins back and forth. There are any number of consumer electronics devices which have about the same number of moving parts, do calculations of comparable difficulty, etc., and which cost less than a hundred dollars, often considerably less.

Israel keeps Hamas more or less in line by searching the entire Palestinian population pretty much the way prison guards search prisoners. Prison guards worry about "shivs," that is, home-made knives made out of pieces of broken glass, and, by extension, they have to worry about anyone being in possession of a piece of glass. There are things like special glassless mirrors made for the prison industry. A shiv is not exactly a Buck (R) Knife, but it will do to stab an informer with. Further, Israel manages to insure that just about any Palestinian who has the skills to get a job somewhere else does get a job somewhere else, and, if possible, arranges for his family to join him. Israel cannot allow the kinds of light manufacturing industries to operate in the West Bank or Gaza, which could be a cover for weapons-making. To police Iraq and Iran on the intensive basis that the Israelis police the West Bank and Gaza would require about eight million American troops-- which we haven't got. We don't even have the two million troops necessary to police just Iraq on that basis. A small handicraft factory in Teharan making "devices" can go about its business without worrying about American GI's literally kicking in the door, unlike a handicraft factory in Baghdad, let alone one in Hebron. Iran is not yet doing all the things it could do, but relations seem to be deteriorating. The Schweinfuhrt raids in World War II suggest that air bombing is simply not an effective way to disrupt the manufacture of small components. Too many tools can simply be carried away on someone's back. To interfere with that kind of manufacturing, there is no substitute for boots on the ground.

Think about a tank. A tank weighs many tons. In order to be able to move around, it has to have an engine as powerful as a railroad locomotive engine. Such an engine generates immense quantities of waste heat, which is not easy or even practical to eliminate (see Carnot's Third Law of Thermodynamics). A heat-seeking missile can home in on the heat. Now, of course, if the tank should be next to a railroad locomotive, a heat-seeking missile will not be able to tell them apart. However, there are not very many things with a heat signature which is likely to be mistaken for a tank. Much the same principle applies for an airplane.
War is notoriously messy, and a certain amount of "friendly fire" simply goes with the territory. I imagine the insurgents will be content with a weapon which does more damage to their enemies than it does to them. The Pentagon's friendly fire mostly results from attempts to shoot an idea.They blasted all the conventional military targets, and yet resistance did not go away. So they fastened upon the idea that there must be some central command post directing the resistance. The Pentagon tried to bomb this command post. But of course, what was actually happening was a form of anarchy, in which the most militant rank-and-filers were making up tactics as they went along, and recruiting followers. The Pentagon would up blasting ordinary houses in the hope that they might be command posts, in a search for a nonexistent object. For example, there is no credible evidence that Osama Bin Laden is still alive. He was most probably killed at Tora Bora, and his friends probably cremated him on the spot with about fifty pounds of TNT, so that no one would ever know what had happened to him. Since then, they have apparently been "Photoshopping" him, and exploiting the credulity of the public with blurred pictures, etc. The Pentagon keeps blasting away at places they think Bin Laden might be, but of course, bullets don't do any harm to ghosts. If anything, bullets rejuvenate ghosts.

I don't think the insurgents will carry on like this. They have an abundance of high-value targets to shoot for-- all of the industrial apparatus of the American war machine, and of the oil industry.

You ask what I know that the rest of the world doesn't. I would say that I know practically nothing that at least a million or so engineers do not know. In every country of the world, I might add. Of course, the vast majority of the people in the world are not engineers. Wartime weapons, as distinct from peacetime parade-ground weapons, are very often contraptions. Read Gerald Pawle, Secret Weapons of World War II, 1957. Despite the grandiose title, the book actually describes the work of a small staff department of the Royal Navy, which might have had a dozen men. They had very little rationing priority, and had to do what they could with what they had. This forced them to be inventive. They found ways to use the output of small factories which normally produced housewares and suchlike.

James Spence - 3/18/2006

No, there is no "civil war" now as per your definition but time may make that statement soon irrelevant. Maybe the question the journalist should pose is, how likely is it there will there be a civil war? I will repeat myself from an earlier post, there are subnational groups who are opposed and divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

One example of these groups would be the well-organized death squads currently terrorizing Baghdad. Some of the men are renegade troops from the Interior Ministry not acting on orders of the government. The Interior Ministry (run by Bayan Jabr) no longer controls his subordinates. After there was a failure to create a new cabinet after the Dec. 15, 2005 elections there was a power vacuum. Thus, these death squads going after Shiites (mostly clerics and politicians) to settle old grievances. They are also known, according to General Rasheed Flayih, as "Field Intelligence Units" performing ethnic cleansings" in at least six areas of Baghdad were police are not seen for weeks. Hit lists carried by a policeman were recently found by Americans in the New Baghdad area after they checked his vehicle. That policeman was also a member of al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia. The names on the list included several hundred Iraqi ministry officials.

Things are not different on the Sunni side. There, too, citizens are taking up arms. After several of their mosques were destroyed last week, the Sunni militias have attracted many new members, including a number of former soldiers. Help and support have been promised from the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Large numbers of weapons and fighters are said already to have arrived. No, there is no "civil war" now but I get the feeling that some people here are nonchalantly brushing off any possibility at all that a real civil war is just around the corner. And I never meant to imply a "one-size-fits-all" definitions of civil war.

With every incident that we read about today in Iraq, the authority of the state dwindles, and people no longer trust it to protect them. Every party and every organization has its own militia. Everyone in Iraqi is legally permitted to keep a Kalashnikov. US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said recently that the US and its coalition partners have opened a "Pandora's box" by overthrowing Saddam. "Ethnic tensions, he added, could not only cause a civil war in Iraq, they could also ignite the entire region."

Andrew D. Todd - 3/17/2006

Well, the thing is that all these bits and pieces are being used in various consumer goods, and as such, their prices are falling drastically. There's an old joke to the effect that if you want to give an auto executive a heart attack, you sneak up behind him and whisper: "ten dollars per unit." In the consumer electronics industry, people are under even greater cost pressure.

For example, upscale digital cameras are now gyroscopically stabilized, so that everyone can take pictures like a pro. This dictates inventing a "gyroscope on a chip." This will work its way down to the cheapest cameras. Likewise, automobiles use the same kind of device to control their anti-skid braking. I don't know whether the Segway scooters will catch on, but if so, they use gyroscopes even more centrally. Similarly, there are bits and pieces from the kind of model airplanes sold at Radio Shack. Experimenters have discovered that you can take inexpensive little electronic cameras apart and modify them to pick up infrared instead of visible light, simply by stripping out an internal optical filter. Given this show of interest, the manufacturers will probably modify the cameras to add infrared and perhaps ultraviolet channels.

The basic nature of consumer goods is that everything winds up at the Salvation Army sooner or later. If you are selling Widgets, you have to convince me that my current Widget isn't good enough, so that you can sell me a new one. All else failing, you try to convince me that my current Widget is unfashionable. That is called "planned obsolescence." For practical purposes, high tech which is not quite high tech enough is treated as garbage. This applies in still more force to toys than to objects of actual utility. If you don't need the leading edge of technology, you can get whatever you want more or less free. I've seen "webcams," that is, USB-interface cameras of approximately television resolution, quoted in Cyberguys catalogs for less than ten dollars.

Modern practice in electronics design is that you switch everything into a computer program as fast as possible. At the heart of a high-tech device, there is almost always a small computer. All kinds of small devices, such as the imaging elements of cameras, are designed to plug into a computer. There are little single-chip-computers which only cost about two bucks, new. That's the important point: the "glue" that holds the bits and pieces together is just a program.

Guided missiles are basically 1960's technology. They are not even remotely in the same league as things like video games. The principal factor preventing American teenagers from simply building guided missiles is the system of restrictions on explosives, pyrotechnics, and related chemicals. This obviously does not apply to people with large quantities of Soviet munitions. Five hundred smart rounds is really a lot, especially if they are of the superadvanced type, comparable to an ICBM rather than to, say, an antitank missile. Smart rounds can be designed as "bolt-on-kits," which can be taken to a conventional round in the field, rather than the conventional round being brought into the factory to be modified.

The most obvious target for a homing missile in Iraq would be American airfields. The United States Air Force has, last time I checked, seventy-odd C-5's, giant cargo planes capable of lifting a tank. When those are gone, there aren't any more. It takes years to get a production line started again, and each airplane costs many millions of dollars. The USAF simply cannot risk its limited supply of aircraft flying into fields which are subject to pinpoint artillery fire. The next targets will be things like fuel depots. By going after this kind of high-value target, the insurgents can effectively neutralize most of the American technological advantages.

My own off-the-cuff estimate is that such a device could be built for less than a hundred dollars, but since its targets cost millions of dollars, costs are not critical. The going rate for an AIBO "puppy dog" robot seems to be about $500 per E-bay, and that is a much more complex device.


In 1876, the United States had a technological advantage over the Indians, but General Custer did not have a technological advantage over Sitting Bull. The Lakotas and Cheyennes had rifles, and there were considerably more Indians at the Little Big Horn than there were Troopers.

By the 1960's people accepted the implications of ICBM's, and accepted, in effect, that the Russians would just have to convince themselves of the shortcomings of communism in their own good time. Very well, with advancing technology, the principle has worked its way down to the tactical level. If you cannot agree with someone, you have to give him ten miles of elbow room.

Richard F. Miller - 3/17/2006

Despite having the words "University of Michigan" attached to the COW's definition, the definition is distinctly history-challenged as well as inapplicable to Iraq. The "at least 1000 deaths a year" is absurdly low--and I would challenge the writers of this study to produce one modern civil war worthy of the name that produced "only" 1001 deaths; or 5000 deaths; or "only" 10,000 deaths. Thus, this definition fails as to proportionality--whatever it strives to define, the reality of modern civil wars as waged is not included. Second, it fails to account for what, historically, has been sine quo non for these conflicts--the presence of outsiders supporting the combatants.
Third, it fails to account for the fact that the vast majority of recent violence in Iraq does not involve the Iraqi government per se, but rather, is an attempt to pit sectary against sectary by the calculated murder of civilians. This isn't civil war--it's an attempt to foment one.

Thus the COW's attempt to create a "one-size-fits-all" definition of civil war suffers from the same problems that all such attempts are heir to--reality, which has a way of fooling even the best of us.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/17/2006

Based on the University of Michigan’s Correlates of War (COW) project, in order for a conflict to be considered a civil war it “had to occur within a generally recognized state,” “produce at least 1000 deaths per year,” “involve the national government as an active participant,” and “experience effective resistance from both rebels and the government.” By this coding criteria, it seems to that the Iraq War makes a damn good candidate for civil war.

Barbara Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 48.

Richard F. Miller - 3/15/2006

Sir: By your standard, Iraq is no different from Bosnia or Rwanda, and arguably Darfur--there was no nationalism or class conflict involved in those genuine civil war either. But there were outsiders--and what will differentiate a genuine civil war from other types of conflict are the factors I noted in my article. Perhaps the place to begin with the level of violence. As bad as Iraq is now, it cannot hold a candle to these other conflicts. In fact, most of the violence is best likened to Mafia tactics (albeit on a larger scale)--there is an ebb and flow to the murder, mostly tit for tat. Bombs detonate in Sadr City; Shiites take their revenge. About the only thing left for the terrorists to do in their efforts to destabilize the U.S. government is to hit again. This has been the pattern. And this, luckily (so far) does not a civil war make.

This could change. But change would require a U.S. withdrawal as well as outsiders deciding to equip their proxies with serious arms, something not yet the case. I would also encourage you to understand not just the religious divide--that dominates headlines--but also the extent to which Iraq is subdivided into tribal loyalties. The extent to which this is true--and the degree to which such loyalties would have to be coordinated, even within the same sect, in order for a true civil war to emerge, is a major factor impeding wider violence.

Adding the tribal factor to the religious divides amounts to something like the famed "3 Dimensional Chess" Spock and Kirk used to play on Star Trek!

James Spence - 3/15/2006

The Bush administration's policies will do nothing to create a stable democracy or environment in the Middle East in the future. At first it was tactical offense, then defense, when they decided to learn from Vietnamization, but eventually this will make things worse.

Meanwhile, it certainly looks like there is a civil war going on in Iraq at the moment. A communal civil war, that is. Subnational groups who are opposed and divided along ethnic or sectarian lines - it’s not about class interests, or nationalism, or other ideas normally associated with a "civil war". These are groups fighting for survival. Groups with historical grievances trying to settle old scores within the four provinces of Iraq.

The insurgents are not necessarily nationalists opposing the U.S. occupation , there is no antioccupation violence in Shiite or Kurdish provinces except for the Sunni Triangle where some Sunni "nationalists" are attacking U.S. troops. Defense of sect and ethnic group, not resistance to foreign occupation, accounts for most of the anti-American violence. Maybe it is one reason, and convenient, for the US to use this as the fight against "terrorism" far from our shores. Part of this war is about resolving communal security problems that are dividing Iraqis.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2006

Did you know Harpers Ferry actually changed hands 11 times in the war? I did see the word "modern," and, forgive me, it had the look of being added later... I thought you were going to cite Mexico as that outside country with an interest.. Yes, British sympathies were largely with the South for a couple of years, but they maintained neutrality fairly well just the same, and never recognized the Confederacy, for which Lincoln and Seward deserve kudos. The French, too, dealt with blockade runners, but it was cash and carry. I don't think the analogy works. Sorry if I was wrong in guessing you were rooting against the U.S.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2006

...for timely informaton about Iraq comes from www.iraqthemodel.blogspot.com, written by a dentist in Baghdad and often containing links to other Iraqi blogs. He says the Iraq army is ethnicly blended well, and that the local police forces generally are not.
However, Iraq contains much intermarriage of basic tribes, has a national pride, is anxious to compete in the Olympics, etc. Also, there are differences between many Shia in Iraq and those in Iran with respect to theocratic control of government.

Andrew D. Todd - 3/13/2006

This is a revised comment which I posted on HNN about a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, I posted it in a thread where people were trading grossly libelous remarks, and I presume the editor "nuked" the whole thing in desperation. However, I think the issues are still relevant, and I trust that Mr. Miller, Mr. Bray, and Mr. Brooks will not feel obliged to exchange "compliments" in such terms as may force the editor to use his gavel.

I notice that people are making a lot of statements about 1960's high-tech, and assuming that they are still true. That is mostly not the case. At the component level, 1960's high-tech was driven by "special-requirements" jobs, usually but not always military. Nowadays, high-tech is driven by mass-production, typically for consumer goods. For example, the most advanced work in computers at present is being done for video games. A million units is a comparatively short production run. Special requirements jobs are usually driven by what I call the "Beowulf assumption," that the way to make a super-power machine is to hook together a lot of small cheap machines. What counts is not performance per se, but price/performance ratio. One implication of this is that security restrictions and export controls tend to be be irrelevant. Businessmen are always probing to see what can be manufactured in a third-world country, and you are not going to be able to prevent diversion, certainly not if you practice a unilateralist foreign policy. Sponsor states, eg. Iran, will always be able to buy consumer goods; take them apart and reassemble them into weapons; and smuggle them to combatants. For example, imagine a PGM conversion kit for a 122mm rocket or a RPG, costing a hundred dollars or less. Fifty or a hundred of them might go into a suitcase. The idea would be to "piggyback" on the Soviets' preexisting mass production/sales program.

For example, a 122mm rocket has a range in excess of ten miles. A conversion kit would essentially consist of a new fuse, with small fins. The modified weapon could download targeting information electronically, launch upright like an ICBM, steer into trajectory, switch to infrared homing at the appropriate moment, and electronically filter out decoy flares. This is what the Iranians can supply if they want to, not merely an IED.

A device such as this conversion kit can be manufactured by a bunch of little girls, aged seven to twelve, in a workshop in the basement of an apartment building, or a school, or a hospital. The manufacture cannot be disrupted by air bombing, however precise, unless you are prepared to go to explicitly genocidal bombing in the Tokyo/Hiroshima/Dresden mode. What this means is that the Iranians are at liberty to feed essentially unlimited numbers of precision-guided munitions into the fray next door.

About the best you can do is to copy the insurgent's tactics, to emulate the suicide bomber with a robot, insofar as possible. You need to build a wide variety of different robots, in order to give yourself choices. The Israelis are using remote-controlled bulldozers to clear urban areas. Of course the dozer is going to get blown up from time to time. However, there is no one aboard, and the dozer is an off-the-shelf Caterpillar, and they can easily purchase a replacement, and slap on a new remote-control package. Effectively, the Israelis are treating a bulldozer as a round of ammunition. This gives them the option to calculatedly destroy ten percent of a city, in a Hausmann-ian program of street widening, instead of destroying the entire city in the course of calling fire on snipers.

Instead of using helicopters or trucks for logistic support, smart airdrops might be a better solution. You can design a "'smart parachute," with PGM electronics controlling small winches to pull on the canopy lines, and fly the parachute down from say, 20,000 ft, to a designated location (use a drogue chute down to 1000 ft, then open the main canopy). This enables you to use a good-sized fixed-wing aircraft, with reasonable operating costs, up above the effective zone of most anti-aircraft weapons.

Of course, in the long run, once the insurgents gain access to PGM's, the occupier has to assume that literally every building within several thousand yards of his forces, without exception, is a potential launch site. That, practically, leaves a choice between genocide and retreat.

The insurgency is prospering precisely _because_ the insurgents are more mentally capable of using the new technology than the United States Army is. They don't have so many mental blinders because, like the Germans in 1914 and 1940, they don't have so much investment in the status quo. They are using their little Improvised Explosive Devices, with remote controls taken from garage door openers, etc.

In 1914, there was such a thing as the "cavalry mentality," meaning that, let us say, the Royal and Imperial Uhlans were obsessively proud of their horses, and their lances, and their steel breastplates, and their "schapskas" (a kind of helmet terminating in a three-cornered mortarboard), and they had these special kind of riding boots that came up over the knee in front. French currasiers, on the other hand, had helmets with a crest in the ancient Greek style. Hussars had their "busbys," or bearskin helmets. The cavalry went to extravagant lengths to avoid being issued with shovels. The real cavalry despised the United States Cavalry and the Australian Light Horse, for being "mounted infantry," who didn't have all this folderal, who actually dismounted, dug in, and used rifles. "I say, old boy, you know, _peasants_ dig; and if these Americans and colonials dig, that probably means they _are_ peasants!" The cavalry usually died well, charging machine guns on horseback.

The cavalry mentality was practically bound up with ideas about caste and racial superiority. The archetypal cavalry officer belonged to the anachronistic agrarian landlord class. Read Isak Dinnesen (Karen Blixen) and Elspeth Huxley, if you want to get a sense of the way their minds worked. Both of these writers spoke for a group who retreated all the way to Africa, rather than change their assumptions. At a certain point, these officers were mentally incapable of entertaining new ideas, because that would have called into question their places within their own societies.

One sees a considerable degree of the cavalry mentality emerging in the American policies in Iraq.

Time is not on the United States' side in Iraq. With each new lot of electronic toys appearing under an American Christmas tree, with each birthday appropriately commemorated, a bit more technology becomes surplus and trickles down to the third world. As the balance of weapons shifts, the tactical initiative will shift, and when that happens, I cannot exclude the possibility of something like Dien Bin Phu.

Richard F. Miller - 3/13/2006

I used the qualification "modern" specifically to exclude wars waged earlier than the 20th century. Besides, the American Civil War is a poor example. In that case, the available offensive assets were largely in place and divided (albeit not equally) long before the attack on Fort Sumter. Close students of that war will remember that during Secession Winter, the South seized most of the major Federal forts and arsenals, Monroe and Sumter excluded. Moreover, within the first 90 days after hostilities commenced, one of the two principal Federal armories (Harper's Ferry) was occupied and its equipment shipped south.

However, a strong case can be made that outside assistance was key in prolonging the war. British and French moral support to the Confederacy complicated much of Lincoln's strategy until 1863; Liverpool provided the Confederacy with ships such as the Alabama and Florida, which in the view of some, destroyed Northern shipping for the next 50 years. The British especially, tolerated, profited from and sold a substantial portion of the blockade runners that consumed much of the U.S. Navy's wartime efforts, as well as kept Southern finances intact for the first several years of war (one recalls Judah Benjamin's European loans secured by southern cotton smuggled out and warehoused in Europe.) Thus, outsiders were important even during the American Civil War.

You are also confusing my analysis of Iraq sectaries with my support (or lack thereof) of Bush's policy or my well wishes for Iraq's success. Things may be getting better (I don't question this) but tribal, religious and ethnic control of the means of violence is perhaps the first problem that our generals will publically acknowledge. As anyone who has traveled through places like Sadr City (Shia), Fallujah (Sunni) or the quasi-Kurdistan in the north can see for with their own eyes, the militia are in regional control. Prospects for the ISF are good and getting better. But only the very naive would argue that the ISF is free from sectarian influence. Quite the contrary. Before being able to field a genuinely national army, it has a long, long, way to go.

Chris Bray - 3/13/2006

Mr. Hughes,

Where are you getting the information that the Iraqi army is "non-sectarian," and that "real incomes are rising fast"?

I'd just like to see what sources you're using to draw these conclusions.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2006

General Pace said Friday, by the way, our current troop strength in Iraq is 132,000, not 140,000.

Who were those "outsiders" willing to arm, finance and otherwise encourage combatants in the War Between the States, 1861-1865?

Iraq today has a strong currency, and real incomes are rising fast. Auto ownership has exploded. Freedom of information is very popular, as the proliferation of newspapers and electronic media show. According to local polls, a very high percentage of the people believe the next few years will see their lives better than they are today... The Iraqis are growing very proud of their new non-sectarian army. They showed this recently with an enormous funeral for the murdered general in Baghdad. The sunni tribes of Anbar are now killing al-Quaeda for us, as are the Saudis in their country, and the Pakistani in theirs. America and her coalition partners have accepted many more casualties than were strictly necessary in order to avoid antagonizing the Iraqi people, in this very noble war. We had the power to turn their country into an oil slick with a loss of 12 soldiers; instead, we elected to lose 2,300 volunteers and establish a large democracy in the Middle East. It is working. As you note, the civil war threat is receding, not increasing. Jaafari will stand aside in a few days, to the huzzahs of everyone. Most U.S. academics, the media, and most Democrats have impeded our success, but they could not stop it. Eventually nearly everyone will applaud the foreign policy of these years, including the exciting opening to India, and the exposure of kleptomania on the East River. And George W. Bush will be known as the Simon Bolivar of the Middle East.