SMOKERS’ CORNER: WHAT MAKES A CIVIL WAR?

Published March 26, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On March 15 this year, supporters of Imran Khan clashed with the police. The clashes went on for hours. Imran’s party leaders and supporters warned that these clashes would turn into a civil war if Imran were arrested. Eruptions of this kind do not evolve into civil wars. Not even into a civil conflict. What Lahore experienced was civil unrest.

In the 1990s, when security forces were conducting an operation in Karachi against alleged militants belonging to the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), the party’s leaders and activists often described the commotion as a civil war. They claimed that Karachi had turned into Beirut. By this they meant the capital of Lebanon, which was the epicentre of a brutal civil war in that country between 1975 and 1990. 

As a reporter for an English weekly at the time, I closely covered the first half of the operation and, indeed, some areas of Karachi did start to look like Beirut. It is estimated that over 3,000 people were killed in the operation, which finally came to a close in 2001. MQM activists had used sophisticated weapons during pitched battles against security forces. The latter too lost many men. There were assassinations, counter-assassinations, street battles, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, protests and disappearances. 

But was it a civil war? Interestingly, not only did MQM call it that, but the military claimed that maps of a planned breakaway Mohajir-majority state, called ‘Jinnahpur’, were found in some MQM offices. Although later discredited, this claim suggested that the MQM was battling the state to turn Karachi and Hyderabad into a separate country through a civil war. But whereas MQM did describe the commotion as a civil war, the party vehemently denied it was planning to create a separate country.

While Imran Khan’s loyalists warn that their clashes with law enforcement in Lahore could lead to a civil war, they are perhaps unaware of the history of and the semantic differences between civil unrest, civil conflict and civil war

In 2009, a senior military officer who was leading the operation confessed that the maps were actually fabricated by the security forces to justify a large-scale operation against the MQM. But if the MQM was not fighting to create a new state, what was it fighting for? According to the MQM, its activists were simply defending themselves and their families from brutal extrajudicial measures applied by the security forces. 

It wasn’t in any way a civil war. The MQM did not organise itself like the Bengali militias had in erstwhile East Pakistan and like the militant Baloch nationalists have been doing for decades. The core aim of the Bengali militias was to use armed militancy against the state to form a Bengali-majority country, Bangladesh. Therefore, the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan was a civil war. What has been happening in Balochistan, however, is still a civil conflict.

According to a 2015 study in the French academic journal Revue d’économie Politique, a conflict is categorised as a civil war if there are over 1,000 (battle-related) deaths per year, and as a civil conflict if there are over 25 (battle-related) deaths per year. Lesser casualties than this constitute civil unrest.

Therefore, Afghanistan has been shifting back and forth between civil war and civil conflict from the 1980s. Lebanon was engulfed by a civil war for 15 years. The conflict in Spain in the 1930s was a civil war. Sudan was in the grip of a civil war from 1983 till 2005. Somalia and Syria still are. So was Pakistan in 1971.

Looking to create a new country through an armed struggle is a key factor of a conflict that can be described as a civil war or a serious civil conflict. Another is when organised alternative forces emerge to claim that they alone are the legitimate representatives of the state. They go to war against the security forces commanded by a state whose legitimacy they refuse to recognise. 

In 1983, a protest movement against Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship in Sindh spiralled into becoming a deadly conflict. Dozens were killed and, at least on two occasions, the regime had to use armoured tanks and, on one occasion, even air raids. Railway stations were set on fire, railway lines uprooted, highways blocked and many villages and towns were taken over by militant youth. 

The movement lasted for four months. It was led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Smaller leftist and Sindhi nationalist outfits were involved as well. But once it became clear that the opposition in Punjab was not doing enough, the movement mutated from being about Zia’s removal, to becoming a Sindhi nationalist movement. This despite the fact that the elder Sindhi nationalist GM Syed had refused to take part in it. 

Once it took this turn, the PPP leadership pulled back and the movement came to a halt in late 1983. Did the federalist party fear that the violence was taking the shape of a civil war? Perhaps. But was it a civil war? No. There was no single cohesive, organised force navigating the movement. The state was up against a number of forces with conflicting goals. And most of these groups weren’t armed. 

If not civil war, then what was happening in many parts of Sindh in 1983 and in Karachi in the 1990s? In 1983, it was civil unrest bordering on civil conflict, but not civil war. It was located in one province. In the 1990s, it was civil unrest that erupted due to a military operation. Civil unrest that then became a civil conflict. 

Then there is the case of the Pakistani state’s counter-insurgency against militant Islamist insurgents between 2007 and 2017. Was it a civil war? Approximately 70,000 people were killed during this period. That’s an average of 7,000 killed every year during the conflict. It was a conflict between the country’s armed forces and a highly organised and weaponised militant collective that wanted to vanquish the republic and replace it with an ‘Islamic Emirate’. It was a civil war.

Imran and his posse are rather loosely using the term civil war. What his party has been involved in since his ouster in April 2022 is not even a civil conflict. What he has so far managed to create is civil unrest — and that too in not more than two cities, Lahore and Islamabad.

But if he insists on proliferating the bloated perception that the country is heading towards a civil war, this perception can become the rationale for the government and the state to use sterner measures against him. There is no likelihood of this civil unrest ever turning into a civil conflict or a civil war. A series of riots do not make a civil war — and certainly not a revolution.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 26th, 2023

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