THE CIVIL WAR CONUNDRUM….Barbara Walter writes in the LA Times about our experience with civil wars over the past 60 years:

Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of all civil wars since 1945 is 10 years….This suggests that, historically speaking, Iraq’s current civil war could be in its early stages, with nothing to suggest that it will be a short, easy war.

….Civil wars rarely end in negotiated settlements. In research for a book on the topic, I found that 76% of civil wars between 1945 and 2005 ended only after one side had defeated all others. Only 24% ended in some form of negotiated solution.

….One of the things learned over the last 60 years is that peace settlements in civil wars only work when backed by a third party willing to enforce the terms and to protect the weaker side from exploitation….The problem in Iraq is that no third party is likely to be willing to guarantee any settlement that is reached. Nobody believes that the United States will stay in Iraq much beyond 2009, or that the Europeans or the United Nations will step in when the United States leaves.

What does this mean for U.S. involvement? One conclusion would be that if we don’t plan to stay for a very long time in Iraq, there is no added benefit in staying a few extra years. At this point, the longer we stay in Iraq, the more American soldiers will be killed and the more likely our presence will help Al Qaeda recruit more supporters.

This is what makes Iraq such a political quagmire for U.S. politicians. Iraq’s civil war is even messier than average, so history suggests that it will last a long time and there’s not much we can do about it. On the other hand, there might be one chance in four that we can grope our way to a negotiated settlement eventually. Those aren’t great odds, but they aren’t hopeless either.

But even in the best case, it’s going to take a long time to reach that settlement and an even longer time to guarantee it afterward. Does anybody seriously think that we’re going to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next 10 or 20 years? And if we’re not, is there any point in staying for one or two?

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