Iraq may be not one war, but four or five – an assemblage of different, crosscutting conflicts.
Think of it this way: In Iraq, the US simultaneously is playing several different games of chess against several different opponents. Meanwhile, some of those opponents are conspiring together. Some are trying to blow each other up.
This multiplicity of adversaries makes the US military's job all the harder – in intelligence terms, if nothing else. A main tenet of counterinsurgency theory is "thoroughly understand your enemy," and in Iraq there are lots of enemies to know, from factions of Sunni insurgents to competing Shiite militias to foreign Al Qaeda fighters, intelligence agents of surrounding states, and old-fashioned criminal thugs.
"Iraq is an extremely complex theater," said Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq, at a briefing on Thursday. "Its stability is threatened by a number of different factors every day."
US officials in the past have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge changes in the nature of the Iraq war.
Thus in the months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other administration officials resisted labeling Iraq's continued violence as an anti-US insurgency. The White House similarly has been slow to hang the phrase "civil war" on Iraq's Sunni-Shiite divide.
But since Robert Gates took over at the Pentagon in December, a new specificity has marked the US descriptions of Iraq fighting. At a Feb. 2 press conference with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary Gates said he thought the words "civil war" oversimplified Iraq's situation.
Gates said there are "essentially four wars in Iraq." One is Shiite versus Shiite, principally for control of Basra and other areas in Iraq's oil-rich south. The second is Shiite-versus-Sunni sectarian warfare. Third, in Gates's listing, is the insurgency, the native Sunni anti-US violence. Fourth is Al Qaeda, which both aids and directs the Sunni insurgency and foments Sunni-Shiite violence.
To this list the recently released unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq adds "widespread criminally motivated violence."
The NIE, which represents the consensus judgment of US intelligence agencies, holds that Iraq does show some signs of being a civil war. It's causing a hardening of ethnosectarian identity among Iraqis, for instance, and is resulting in the displacement of populations.
Nevertheless, "the Intelligence Community judges that the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq," concludes the NIE – a finding that matches Gates's view.
Does President Bush's new strategy for Iraq address this complexity?
Just by persevering in its attempts to establish security in Iraq, the US is in many respects countering all its adversaries, says William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
"The unifying principal for these groups is that their strategic objective is to push us out of Iraq. Victory for them is anything other than success for the US," says Dr. Martel, author of "Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy."
US intelligence does have the difficult job of trying to understand the nature and motives of many different adversaries and alleged friends alike, notes Martel. As military operations this year in Baghdad have shown so far, one group – Shiite militias – may fade into the shadows, while another – Sunni insurgents – steps up its attacks.
US operations then become "a whack-a-mole game," says Martel.
Other analysts hold that the chaos of Iraq's conflict means that the current US effort to establish security in Baghdad will, at best, achieve only a temporary calm there. The divides that fuel the current conflict – both between sectarian groups, and within them – won't be resolved merely by an absence of fighting, they say. Likewise, they hold out little hope that the political components of US strategy will be able to stabilize Iraq.
"Why won't we see the same problems again if we try to withdraw?" asks James Fearon, a Stanford University political scientist and author of an analysis of the nature of Iraq's civil war in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
The term "civil war" is indeed apt for Iraq, argues Dr. Fearon. It is often applied to conflicts marked by factionalism and chaos, such as the multisided Lebanese civil war of the late 1970s and 1980s.
History shows that the majority of civil wars have ended when one side wins. Power-sharing agreements, similar to the national reconciliation the US is pushing for in Iraq, are far less common, according to Fearon.
Two factors can make power-sharing feasible: cohesion among the warring parties and a period of fighting that makes obvious the relative military capabilities of both sides – in Iraq's case, Sunni and Shiite forces. Neither of these currently exists in Iraq, says Fearon.
From the vantage point of the US, the immediate task is to stop bullets flying, from whomever they come. "The question is ... how do we get from where we are to where we are supposed to be?" said General Pace at the Feb. 2 briefing. "And that is what the new plan is about."