IN THE NEWS
I have mixed feelings about this Newsday article that's making the rounds in the blogs today. What good does it do to label the conflict in Iraq a civil war instead of an insurgency, the recent troubles, or whatever else you might call it?
First, there are no universally agreed-upon definitions of many of these terms. Professionals who write about terrorism, guerrilla warfare, fourth generation warfare, and the like usually start their books with a statement like, "I am defining [insert term here] the following way."
That's not the same as saying there are no standards. There is agreement among scholars and practicioners of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary warfare about the rough contours of these conflicts. The efforts to delineate crisply-defined edges between different types of combatants or methods is where agreement breaks down. For example, would you equate the Taliban remnants in Afghanistan with the French maquis during WWII? I don't think everyone reading this post would answer in exactly the same way.
Second, common assumptions about the scale of violence needed to sustain a "civil war" are usually wrong. It takes far fewer insurgents to make an insurgency than most people would expect. Only a few thousand Taliban guerrillas--maybe even under 1,000--are sufficient to keep the movement alive and kicking. During many phases of internal wars, the insurgents are merely trying to sustain enough political and military strength to survive until opportunities to expand arise.
Third, what makes a "civil" war is intent, not strength. One side is trying to reshape the political landscape, by seceding, toppling a leader, replacing an entire regime, or just forcing a government to change particular policies.
I know why many bloggers are jumping on the Newsday article. Civil war is shorthand for things are not going well in Iraq. It's also a way of expressing concern that the different ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq will begin fighting more directly, or new groups who have been sidelined will enter the fray. So why not just say that?