« Why the Libyan rebels will (probably) win | Main | War versus non-war »

March 24, 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Shouldn't "protracted and bloody civil war in Libya" be on the list?

Doug M.

No. Violence is a necessary condition for for items (2), (3), and (5).* A protracted civil war without those contingencies --- meaning a de facto partition --- is a diplomatic headache but not a disaster nor an invitation for further involvement.

*#5 could also happen after a rebel victory.

I'd hardly be suprised if #5 happened in the way of a rebel victory.

I think that Assad's decided against having a #6 for now, at least. The Dera'a Massacre may yet bring him down, but he's moving like quicksilver to avoid responsibility for his own security forces, which have killed many more people today (20-50) as the protests proliferate.

In a turn that I think is astonishingly awesome, the reformist/human rights arm has made this: http://www.themonkeycage.org/assets_c/2011/03/Assad_Joker-418.html it's calling card.

Not sure if this will bring down Assad in the end, because no one is calling for his deposition, just reforms to make things more fair, backed up by the French government, of all things. If Assad does go through with the economic/political reforms demanded, it may topple him anyway as he splits off from the Sunni elite.

Demur. How many people is the civil war killing? We've been seeing heavy fighting about every second or third day, right? Plus bombing, plus lots of low-grade stuff that's not making the news. So, the death toll is probably at least a couple of hundred a day, yeah?

So, it's been a month. Boom, three thousand dead -- plus injured and maimed, billions in economic damage, tens of thousands of refugees, yadda yadda.

I'd call that a pretty bad contingency. What am I missing?

Doug M.

Doug, you're not thinking it through. No, let me rephrase. You're not thinking it through from two different perspectives:

(1) a social scientist;
(2) an American nationalist.

I must start by saying that you seem to have completely invented your casualty figures out of whole cloth. I am familiar with the literature on civil wars --- those numbers would be rather high for the kind of fighting that we have seen since the U.N. intervention. Wikipedia, in this case, is somewhat helpful.

Be that as it may. From the perspective of a social scientist, a prolonged civil war in the absence of contingency 5 is highly unlikely to kill more people than would have died had Gaddafi regained control in Benghazi. The counterfactual in which the war results in a de facto partition of the country is better than the counterfactual in which the U.N. does nothing. End of argument!

That, however, isn't satisfying. Me and my wife, we're American nationalists. (We also have a liking for the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.) In that respect, the calculus is different. And in that respect, a prolonged de facto partition at a low level of violence (and by definition, it will be low-level without contingencies #2, 3, and 5) will not lead to irresistible pressures to increase the level of intervention.

In other words, a de facto partition at a low level of violence is not a good thing, but it is neither (a) unforeseen; (b) worse than the effects of doing nothing; nor (c) a generator of pressures to send in American ground troops.

That's what you're missing.

I don't do complete invention, and I'm mildly surprised that you'd suggest I would.

In this case, I made an estimate based on civil conflicts that I'm closely familiar with. To give one comparandum, the civil war in 1990s Yugoslavia killed about 96,000 people in just under four years. That would work out to around 2,000 people per month. However, more than half of the deaths occurred in two fairly short periods at the beginning and end of the conflict; the death rates during those periods were much higher. In terms of death rate, this looks to me a lot like Yugoslavia in the long, hot summer of 1991. (If you want to peel back the vinyl, I can discuss why I think it's a not-completely-stupid comparandum, what other conflicts I think are worth considering, etc. But my point is, that's where I started.)

I then crosschecked with an online search that led me to, inter alia, the WHO, IFHR, and International Criminal Court. The ICC's estimate of "10,000" seems high and poorly substantiated. However, the WHO and IFHR give estimates of about 3,000 and 2,000 respectively as of early March. The wikipedia page that you cite gives ~2500 reported deaths plus ~1,000 missing as of yesterday. My estimate falls pretty precisely in the middle of that range.

Frankly, I think it's lowish. Experience suggests that, well away from the falling bombs and the cameras, there's going to be a lot of quiet score-settling, status adjustments, and disposal of the inconvenient. Libya's a tribal society with forty years of pent-up grievances, and knifes can run up the tally just as fast as guided munitions.

I note in passing that it's a more firmly grounded estimate than the "100,000" being thrown around as dead in Bengazi in the counterfactual. In 40 years of rule, Qaddafi's shown no taste for large-scale domestic massacre. Oppression, assassination, torture, disappearances, hand-crafted horror on a retail level -- absolutely. And, of course, Lockerbie, Chad, Uganda. But those were all /abroad/. Mass murder of tens of thousands of his own people? Not his style up to now -- and he's had a number of opportunities. I don't say it's out of the question; I do say the burden of proof is on those making the claims.

(There was Syria in 1982, sure. I have my doubts about whether Hama is a convincing precedent.)

Contingency 5: a prolonged civil war without major massacres is pretty unlikely. But say they manage it.

It won't make much difference. Massacres, while dramatic, are not likely to be the main drivers of death in a protracted civil war. In Yugoslavia 1991-4, there was only one massacre that killed >1000 people in one event (Srebrenica), plus maybe three or four with death totals in the 100 - 1,000 range. Remove these, and the death total is still in excess of 90,000. Over 90% of all deaths were not from large massacres. They were from smaller mass killings and/or normal "wastage" -- combat deaths, Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, civilians caught in crossfires, you name it.

So, a protracted civil war is certain to kill thousands of people and to inflict massive economic damage as well. At what point the war becomes worse than the counterfactual... well, that's a judgment call, ennit. If you think "100,000" people would have died in Bengazi, then it will take a while for a civil war to reach that figure -- though it's certainly possible. If you suspect the counterfactual figure would have been lower, then we're already well on our way.

Doug M.

You know what? Part of that last post was sloppy and confusing, because I'm mashing together casualties from before and after the airstrikes. I did that because, from a Libyan POV, the level of violence has been pretty constant since the "First Battle of Benghazi" back six weeks ago.

But from Noel's POV, casualties suffered before the airstrikes are irrelevant. Those people would be dead regardless of whether we had intervened or not.

So, only casualties since March 20 should be weighed in the balance against intervention.

Doug M.


I take your points, but I fail to see their relevance. I’m not sure what the counterargument is, in fact. I think it is that a civil war could kill more people than a Gaddafi victory would have, without a collapse of order inside either side’s territory. That’s possible, of course, but unlikely given the history of this war thus far, the forces laid out against each other, and the country’s geography.

First, since the allied intervention, the number of casualties has fallen to less than 30 people per day. (I assume that this is what you mean by “wastage.”) That’s a terrible number, but this is a war with (so-far) clear front-lines and rater small combat forces. If it gets worse, it will be either because the rebels collapse, or because chaotic fighting has erupted inside the territory of one side or another.

Second, as you know, dictatorships engage in mass terror after open revolts. They usually take the form of targeted “disappearances” and other forms of extra-judicial action, although in Libya show trials are not unknown. Estimates are that upwards of 10,000 people “disappeared” in the purges following the attempted counter-coups against his rule in 1975-76, and that was a far less serious challenge than this. In terms of recent mass killings, however, the ‘96 Abu Salim prison massacre killed 1,200 people. The death of one out of every 80 males in enemy territory would be in line with most historical responses to armed threat by dictatorships.

Finally, as you say, it is true that “experience suggests that, well away from the falling bombs and the cameras, there's going to be a lot of quiet score-settling, status adjustments, and disposal of the inconvenient.” If that happened on a large scale, then that would represent a breakdown in public order in rebel-held territory. I agree that’s a threat: contingency #4, “rebels start to fall apart in their territory.”

In summation, a prolonged civil war is only a bad outcome if it kills more people that would have died without the intervention, or leads to increased Western pressures to intervene.

-- "it kills more people that would have died without the intervention": I think this is a distinct possibility. I don't think we're there yet, but if the civil war drags on long enough, we'll hit that mark at some point.

-- "or leads to increased Western pressures to intervene" -- air strikes continue, we have CIA guys on the ground, and we're seriously discussing arming the rebels.

I'll be surprised if we intervene in the sense of putting armed soldiers on the ground, even "advisors" or such. But wasting large amounts of money, military resources and diplomatic capital propping up a rebellion that couldn't survive a week without us strikes me as a bad outcome.

It's early days; things could change. I'd be happy to be wrong here.

Doug M.

Numbers: are you citing the wikipedia page as a /primary/ source? Because it's an aggregator, and not a particularly complete one; it's counting only deaths that have been formally reported by one side or another.

A single example: multiple sources state that at least 70 vehicles were destroyed by French air strikes at Benghazi, including at least 14 tanks and 20 APCs. Assuming the tanks were T-72s, and the APCs were BMP-2s or Italian 6614s, that's around 250 passengers and crew just from the tanks and APCs alone. Yet wikipedia gives "27-30" government casualties -- for a full-on tank, infantry and air battle in the suburbs of a major city that lasted a day and a half and ended with several thousand government soldiers in headlong retreat. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest that might be a bit on the low side.

-- 1 in 80 males actually seems like a plausible estimate to me. Benghazi's about 700,000 people. Throw in the other five provinces of Cyrene and you're talking about 1.3 million. (One thing that hasn't been mentioned much is that the west of Libya is much more populous than the east. On a map, it looks like the country is divided roughly equally between government and rebels, but AFACBT about 3/4 of the population is still living under government control.)

Anyway: 1.3 million -> 650k males -> 8,000 deaths. That strikes me as plausible, and consistent with both past behavior and regional experience.

Hell, let's double it. Say 15,000 dead in the counterfactual. A Hama, give or take. (I have strong reservations about the relevance of Hama as precedent here, but let that bide. Alt-Bengazi could have gone a very different route and still ended up in almost the same place.) It's a broad guess at a counterfactual, but I can live with it, and it gives us a number to work with.

Doug M.

The comments to this entry are closed.