October 11th, 2006


On insurgencies.

Awhile back on C-SPAN, I saw a panel testify before a House committee on the situation in Iraq, as called by Rep. Shays (R-CT).

One of those who testified, a James D. Fearon, Dept. of Political Science, Stanford University, was an expert in civil war, and has done extensive statistical studies on them. His advice was rather sobering, and I thought it should be shared, so I made notes on it.

Based on his extensive studies on how civil wars both unfold and conclude, his conclusions on Iraq boiled down to three main points, quoted directly:

1> There is a civil war going on in Iraq. The scale and extent of this civil war is currently somewhat limited, due to the Coalition military presence.

2> Civil wars usually last a long time, with an average duration of 10 years. They usually end with military victories. They only end in successful power sharing agreements about 17% of the time, at best -- in many of these cases, it really appears that one side has won militarily, while still offering concessions.

Why are successful powersharing agreements so unusual? Because, once both sides are on a war footing, it is very hard for both sides to trust that the other side will observe the terms of a written agreement. Basically, each side knows that the other will be tempted to use force to change the deal. When powersharing does work, it has usually been after years of intense fighting which has clarified that neither side can win outright, and when the combattants are not highly factionalized -- if they are factionalized, then you cannot trust that the other side would be able to stick to a deal, even if you are capable of reaching one.

Iraq does not satisfy these conditions. The parties in Iraq are highly factionalized, and they have not fought to a stalemate -- something that the Coalition presence in Iraq prevents.

3> The historical record on how civil wars end suggests, unfortunately, that in terms of reaching a peaceful, democratic Iraq that can stand on its own, it probably doesn't matter much if the U.S. stays in Iraq one more year, five more years, or even ten more years. Foriegn troops can enforce powersharing and limit violence while they're present, but once they go, lack of trust, factionalization, and the fact that the players are organized for violent conflict means that the deals we backed would be likely to fall apart, as groups scramble for power and security. Think of Bosnia, where there is still an international soveriegn guaranteeing powersharing more than ten years after the war ended, and, in that case as compared to Iraq, the combattants had already fought to a stalemate when the agreement was struck, and were not factionalized internally. Or think of Afghanistan now. It is very hard to imagine that removal of NATO and US troops would not lead to rapid escalation of the civil war and disintigration of the current civil order. Iraq is likely to be a much harder and more costly case than Bosnia, and certainly no easier than Afghanistan.

Fearon's conclusion was basically that the U.S. should do a phased withdrawl to Kurdistan, in the hope of saving what could be saved and giving the U.S. a base to surpress al Qaeda influence in Iraq from, while buying the Iraqis some time to complete the ethnic "sorting" process that is currently happening, so that the Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds wouldn't be so prone to kill each other when we finally leave.

I can't say that I entirely agree with him on what to do, but it was interesting to hear someone state the obvious, while providing a solid statistical basis for his conclusions.

Ultimately, I don't think it likely that the U.S. is likely to "win" in either Iraq or in Afghanistan in any meaningful, permanent way. The reasons I would cite for this are:

1> The relative unlikeliness that a negotiated settlement will work in either country, so long as there are other parties in the conflict who wish to intervene, can't be negotiated with, and are capable of buying/fomenting support inside of both countries.

2> Afghanistan is also in a state of civil war, and clearly has been so all this year. More and more, it's clear that the people fighting this conflict are significantly, if not primarily, Afghani, and ultimately it matters little whether they are bankrolled by the Taliban, Pakistanis, drug-dealing warlords, or anyone else.

3> Total military victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely, due to lack of manpower, lack of resources, lack of political will, and what appears to be a permanent state of incoming combattants and well-funded "recruiters" into both countries. These combattants are relatively successful in blending in to a chaotic environment, and quite capable of putting the locals in the middle of the conflict, drawing many of them into the larger resistance as a result.

4> Both conflicts will require a great deal of political unity, arguably for several additional election cycles, both in the U.S., Britain, Canada, and elsewhere. This political unity is unlikely, given the relative lack of support and popularity for these conflicts amongst our allies. Few countries involved are willing to risk the lives of their soldiers in offensives, and each soldier they lose only increases the level of popular opposition to both the conflict and the leaders involved.

5> The ultimate cost of a victory is quite possibly prohibitive. Based on a ten year insurgency, it is not unreasonable to expect that U.S. casualties in Iraq will be approximately 8000 KIA and 90,000 WIA, with over a trillion dollars of accrued longterm war debt. If that is what it will take to achieve a victory, I'd have to argue that it would be a pyrrhic one.

If there is any shame worse than retreating from the battlefield, it is to send soldiers to fight a war that they cannot reasonably be expected to win.

As much as I normally hate to cite neocon warbloggers, I do agree with what one such blogger said recently... almost as much as I absolutely disagree with his genocidal predilections.

"Our major mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan was adopting the Colin Powell doctrine of "you break it, you buy it." No, nitwits, we break it we break it. We fought these wars to send messages to the enemies of the United States."

Note that I'm not blaming Colin Powell for this one. He didn't advise "buying" Iraq, nor was he "the decider".  

I would argue that by expanding the war far beyond its original scope, we started a de facto war against Islam, and by making an oil rich nation our obvious priority, we sent both our enemies, our potential enemies, and our potential allies entirely the wrong message.

As Clinton knew, sometimes the best worst message you can send -- for behind every military response is a failure of diplomacy -- is simple reciprocity, as accurately targeted as possible.


Updated John Hopkins "Lancet Report" on Iraqi dead.


Bush disputes its validity, claiming that its methodology is flawed. The Iraqi government denies it, claiming fewer Iraqi deaths have occurred than even indicated by surveys based primarily on obviously incomplete coroner's records. 

Both, however, are intentionally deceiving their people.

The methodology in this case appears to be excellent. All the surveying was conducted by teams of medical doctors, capable of speaking both Arabic and English, using the same methodology as used and accepted in Chad and Darfur. The extent of the survey was enormous, with 12,801 individuals in 1,849 households personally surveyed. The degree of evidence requested by those surveyed was also excellent, with families of deceased Iraqis providing death certificates in over 90 percent of cases.

The U.S. regularly accepts poling data of one person for every 285,000 as being valid, plus or minus 5%. In this case, the polling data was approximately one person for every 2,170 Iraqis. That's extremely significant. A far larger population was surveyed than in the prior Lancet report, and the results obtained were extremely consistant with the prior report.

Also note what the survey measures -- excess morbidity above statistically expected levels prior to the war. That means Iraqis who die from terrorism, from internal violence, from fighting coalition troops, from disease, malnutrition, cancer, lack of access to emergency medical aid, etc.

Those numbers could easily number in the hundreds of thousands, as I've argued in the past.

And no, approximately 655,000 dead Iraqis is absolutely not an indictment of the inhumanity of our troops. Instead, it is ultimately an indictment of the inhumanity of war, and of those who brought our nation and the people of Iraq in to war, without providing us a clear way out.

*** UPDATE: 

As a way of comparing the increased level of accuracy of the updated Lancet report vs. the original one, it's important to pay attention to the statistical confidence interval

The old Lancet report was highly criticized for having a smaller number of surveyed households, which led to a 95% confidence interval that, although very likely to be close to accurate, was only 8000 deaths at one extreme, and 194,000 deaths at the other, for the first 13 months of conflict. The new survey, however, provides a far more significant, accurate statistical range between 430,000 and 710,000.