Thanks mostly to political environment, we’ve all been mired in a debate over whether Iraq is in a state of civil war or not. What should be a cold assessment of truth on the ground in Iraq has, like every single aspect of the war, become politicized. If you describe the situation in Iraq as a “civil war,” it’s taken as an implied or direct criticism of President Bush more than your opinion of the actual state of play in Iraq. If you resist calling it a “civil war,” you’re usually seen as an apologist for the Bush administration and its policies.

Why everything has to revolve around Bush is a mystery to me. Making everything about him trivializes the war and personalizes it to the point that real policy debate becomes impossible. It makes our politics petty and hinders our ability to see reality for what it is and learn to adjust to it. It’s childish, but it’s where we are as a country.

Nevertheless, I’m going to wade into this. Having seen a little bit of Baghdad up close and talked with the troops serving there, I don’t believe Iraq is in a state of civil war. Before you liberals run off declaring me a neo-con or Bush apologist, hear me out. You can always mischaracterize me later, but at least do me the honor of using my actual words. And before any war supporters cheer, hear me out.

As I said in my first post since returning from Iraq, calling the situation there a “civil war” misunderstands and oversimplifies the conflict there. We’ve all seen the movie Mad Max, right? Iraq is something like that–chaotic and hyper violent in places, but the world of that film isn’t orderly enough to be called a civil war. Well, parts of Baghdad are a lot like that film. Parts aren’t. Most of the violence is confined to areas where the Sunni and Shia mix, along with insurgent Haifa Street. The rest of Baghdad, the vast majority in fact, isn’t terribly violent unless the insurgents or terrorists mount attacks there to draw in US forces and press coverage.

Which isn’t to say that things are safe even outside Baghdad. Several contractors have been abducted in the past couple of months around Basra, and the environment for Iraqi journalists remains lethal all over the country.

The truth is, a real civil war might be a welcome development, as it would probably be less complicated than what it actually going on over there right now. A civil war might clarify who is on which side and what they want. Their reasons for fighting might even be clear enough that we could take a side in good conscience and help that side win. But like everything else about Iraq, the violence that is going on over there is too complicated to be distilled down to those two words–civil war.

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LTC Steve Miska, FOB Justice

Lt Col Steve Miska, commander at FOB Justice in Baghdad, put it this way: “There are so many different enemies out there, and then there’s the complexity of the fight…There are so many different cats and dogs running around the battlefield that you could take the enemy (the insurgents and al Qaeda) away and we would still have a hard time trying to synchronize all the activities.”

One of those dogs is Moqtada al-Sadr, boy cleric and warlord of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM for short). He’s not the titanic moster we tend to think he is, and by that I mean that he’s not all-powerful and doesn’t wield the same kind of influence that Sistani does. According to Vali Nasr, Sadr has a nickname–Mullah Atari–because as a teen he spent more time playing video games than boning up on his Islamic law. He’s seen as a student, not a master, and as a hothead, not a great leader–by most Shia in Iraq. Nevertheless, I’m on the record wishing our troops had been allowed to kill him two years ago. He has attacked US forces and is a menace. But he also leads a legal political entity in Iraq now, so we can’t go after him directly without him making some very big and serious mistakes. And going after him now would destabilize the Maliki government. That may not in itself be a bad thing, but we had better have a plan for dealing with what destabilizing Maliki could do to the overall battle space. It could, for instance, precipitate a civil war. Which could be a bad thing, or a good thing. Clear enough?

Sadr’s JAM is itself an army of cats and dogs, what the troops at FOB Justice refer to as “good JAM and bad JAM.” Good JAM are local men who have joined JAM not because of ideology, but either because they need the money or because they want to work within the only group in their neighborhood that has the clout and firepower to keep a lid on ordinary crime and violence, and in their neighborhood JAM is that group. So they join up. They couldn’t give two flips for Sadr, and they might join up with the Iraqi Army or police if they thought those groups were stronger than Sadr or could protect their families after they split with Sadr, but for now they’re just local anti-crime security agents. Politically, they’re potentially good guys. But soberingly, they see the Mahdi Army as stronger than the police–and they’re probably right. And the police are full of Sadrists anyway, so to some extent what’s the difference between joining the police or JAM? In some places, the differences are vast. In some, there is no difference at all.

Then there’s bad JAM, Sadr’s real loyalists. These guys are very dangerous. They form some of the death squads that hunt Sunnis, torture them and kill them. They foster organized crime to pay for their weapons, and they threaten local authorities who don’t go along with their way of thinking. They’re an Islamic version of la cosa nostra with the ambition to take over Iraq, and they’re flexible enough to use Maliki or mortar rounds, whichever they deem would be most effective on any given day. They’re very bad news. They’re aligned with Iran ideologically, too, and are getting training and weapons from Tehran’s Hezbollah goons.

The trick for our troops is to sort out good JAM from bad JAM, and that’s about as easy as it sounds sometimes. How do you know why any given Madhi fighter has joined the JAM? Our troops have to stay in an area long enough to get to know who the local players are and what their goals are. Our troops have to generate good, reliable intelligence on the ground, which means getting out of their “urban submarines” and walking around on foot talking to people on the street. That takes equal measures of guts and patience, and it takes knowing how to read people and watch for threats even while you’re engaged in conversations over chai. They have to hold meetings with local sheiks and sort out the good ones from the radicals. And they’re working from within bases and behind a language barrier, with a foreign culture thrown in just to make it more fun. To make it even more fun, the Pentagon has the annoying habit of having units train together away from Iraq and then splitting them up once they’re sent to Iraq. And, putting them in, say, Samarra for one rotation and Baghdad the next. The threat environment in Samarra versus Baghdad is totally different, and our troops end up burning up a third to half of their deployments just figuring out who’s who. And then they move on, and the next unit has to start that ground work all over again, because there is very little overlap in unit rotations.

Beyond the JAMs and the Badr Brigades, there are foreign arms dealers working a lucrative trade in Iraq. Captain Stacy Bare has seen them on the streets near FOB Justice, working what is currently the world’s biggest weapons bazar.

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CPT Stacy Bare, civil affairs officer at FOB Justice

“There hasn’t been a really big war for people to profit off of in the arms trade, and you’ve got French traders, Russian traders, Portuguese traders, Brazilian traders coming in. And you hear people say things and you wonder ‘What’s this German guy doing here?'” He continues, “You hear people talk about, well there’s Germans and French and they’re the problem…they’re just here to make a buck. You’ve got mafia guys that are here to make a buck. Like Col Miska said, take away the insurgency and we’ve still got a problem.”

That problem is organized crime, Iraqi and international. Organized crime certainly shows up in modern civil wars, usually providing drugs and arms, but its heavy influence in Iraq hints at least to me that we’re looking at something other than a classic civil war.

The troops don’t call it a civil war. They call it an insurgency, and their strategy, counterinsurgency, or COIN. And they’re working Iraq along classic COIN doctrine, working with the local people as if they are the principal war terrain, and working to co-opt as many of the “enemy” as possible without having to fight and kill every last one. I only put “enemy” in quotes because there isn’t any one enemy to deal with; Iraq is full of enemies, who hate the US, or hate each other, or will work with each other against the US or with the US against each other. Very few of them have national ambitions, and some are agents of Iran and to a lesser extent Syria.

If the troops aren’t treating the war they’re fighting as a civil war and they’re not calling it a civil war, it’s a good bet that whatever fight they’re in, it’s not a civil war. In the case of Iraq, it’s too chaotic and the violence is too uneven to be called a civil war.