There is a broad consensus, from McCain/Lieberman, to Friedman/Pollack, even to Zinni/Batiste, that the consequences of an Iraq withdrawal, precipitate or otherwise, are profoundly dismal. But would quitting Iraq, over 20 months, say (logistics likely require such a protracted time-frame), be so terrible, unleashing regional conflict, genocide and other horribles? Perhaps not.
If U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq in the near future, three developments would be likely to unfold. Majority Shiites would drive Sunnis out of ethnically mixed areas west to Anbar province. Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups. And the Kurdish north would solidify its borders and invite a U.S. troop presence there. In short, Iraq would effectively become three separate nations.
That was the conclusion reached in recent "war games" exercises conducted for the U.S. military by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson. "I honestly don't think it will be apocalyptic," said Anderson, who has served in Iraq and now works for a major defense contractor. But "it will be ugly."
In making the case for a continued U.S. troop presence, President Bush has offered far more dire forecasts, arguing that al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- would take over Iraq after a "precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces. Al-Qaeda, he said recently, would "be able to recruit better and raise more money from which to launch their objectives" of attacking the U.S. homeland. War opponents in Congress counter that Bush's talk about al-Qaeda is overblown fear-mongering and that nothing could be worse than the present situation.
A truly rapid withdrawal is not endorsed in this report. But raising the prospect of desperate deterioration in Iraq and its environs after an American military disengagement necessarily tends to obscure two things. First, the presence of U.S. forces has not stabilized Iraq thus far. Second, conditions for instability have become structural elements of Iraqi politics. Given these facts, how long should the U.S. keep troops in Iraq, when its military presence only delays an inevitable escalation of intra-Iraqi fighting?
Military disengagement will be a severe blow to the United States, which staked its prestige and defined its security on the basis of a war to disarm Iraq and transform its politics. Disengaging will signify the inability to achieve these strategic goals. American resolve will likely be questioned. In the near to medium term, this could make it harder, perhaps much harder, to influence Middle Eastern governments when Washington most needs their cooperation to stabilize Iraq and push back against Iran, without further stoking regional sectarian rivalries. The dismal irony is this: Proponents of an indefinite commitment of U.S. forces seek above all to preserve the core American interest in demonstrating resolve; but that demonstration cannot ultimately be sustained and, in any case, has been devalued by the fundamentally flawed nature of the intervention and its aftermath. The jihadis already believe that they have won while Iran is convinced that it has the upper hand, despite the tenacity of U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.
It is possible that neighboring countries will intensify their competition by proxy within Iraq and foster even greater violence. The problem to fear is the transfer of heavy weapons to the contending factions by outside supporters. The more heavily armed the combatants are, the more noncombatant casualties will result from the fighting. U.S. and
UK forces, however, have not been notably successful in controlling the borders thus far. This is a hazard that will have to be contained primarily through regional diplomacy backed by accurate intelligence. The Turks are apprehensive about the transformation of Iraq and might be tempted to intervene if they perceive a Kurdish state with significant resources rising from the wreckage of a sinking Iraqi state. This would not be in the U.S. interest, but many Turks know that an intervention would be no less a disaster for them than it was for the United States. A reflexive Turkish invasion of northern Iraq is not an ineluctable result of American disengagement.
Jordan, an important U.S. ally, has been imperiled by the war, in part because it has been the object of attacks by the Zarqawi network and, perhaps more dangerously, has emerged as the obvious destination for an estimated 750,000 refugees, over 10 percent of its indigenous population. U.S. forces, in their current numbers and configuration, are not going to solve this problem. Until Iraqi politics cohere, Jordan most needs financial aid and competent technical assistance to house, sustain, and control the second and third waves of refugees who lack resources of their own. The fact is that long term prospects for the Sunni states friendly to the United States may be clouded, but they are unlikely to face unmanageable subversive challenges as a consequence of an orderly U.S. disengagement from Iraq over a twelve-to-eighteen-month period.
Although a regional conflagration is conceivable, it is not the likeliest consequence of civil war in the Middle East. Civil wars in the Middle East have not been rare occurrences, yet with the partial exception of the Lebanese civil war, which involved Israel and Syria, such wars have largely been contained within the divided state itself.
Nor have wars between states submerged the entire region in violent disorder. The Iran-Iraq war raged for a decade but did not engulf the region. Arab-Israeli wars have not led to inter-Arab wars. Indeed, the only recent aggressor in this mode was Saddam Hussein, when he attacked Kuwait in 1990. Arguably, that war did engender a broader conflict—in the form of a sustained al-Qaeda campaign against the United States—but it did not turn
into a regional war.
In 2004, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden, said of the U.S. intervention: “America is between two fires. If it stays in Iraq, it will bleed to death; if it leaves, it will lose everything.” His forecast comes disturbingly close to describing current circumstances. It need not, however, be prophecy. More than three years after the
intervention began, to be sure, the United States finds itself in an agonizing strategic position. The time has come to acknowledge that the United States must fundamentally recast its commitment to Iraq. It must do so without any illusions that there are unexplored or magic fixes, whether diplomatic or military. Some disasters are irretrievable. Having staked its prestige on the intervention and failed to achieve many of its objectives, the United States will certainly pay a price for military disengagement from Iraq. But if the United States manages its departure from Iraq carefully, it will not have lost everything. Rather, the United States will have preserved the opportunity to recover vital assets that its campaign in Iraq has imperiled: diplomatic initiative, global reputation, and the well-being and political utility of its ground forces.
This is a relatively high-brow version of the argument for a gradual redeployment a la Baker-Hamilton. A more 'popular' version might be found here (around the 1:45 remaining mark, or so...):
Make no mistake. Kenny Rogers aside, there are hugely serious stakes at play here. But the Iraq mission, per any reasonably broad-based assessment, has been lost. So I'm in damage control mode, not "victory" mode. Maybe I'm just a defeatist coward, however, and time spent with stolid burghers (say, the Kagan clan) might toughen me up. Or instead, perhaps, I'm grappling with reality rather than fantasy. Who knows?
But the point here is that, regardless of one's view, we should begin better gauging what the impact of a U.S. withdrawal 12-24 months out is likely to be, as it's increasingly likely given political trend-lines. Some massive al-Qaeda safe haven? I'd bet smaller than the one in Pakistan, frankly, when not being decimated by Shi'a killing squads. Genocide against more moderate Sunnis on an epic scale? Certainly odious ethnic cleansing in mixed population centers like Baghdad would pick up if the U.S. vacated such neighborhoods precipitously, but are we going to stay there so long, perhaps decades, that the scars of this conflict will have faded so that such revanchist urges will have simply vanished, wholly disappeared? Is Iraq really Korea all over again, a decades long commitment? Somehow, I doubt it, for a variety of reasons. And, last, a risk of regionalization of the conflict? Turkey may well come in whether or not U.S. forces are there, and I'm hard pressed to see a proxy Saudi-Iranian conflict actually leading to those two countries openly coming to direct blows.
In other words, if you believe, as I do, that the surge can only cause, at very best, short-term improvements to localized security conditions, rather than significantly impact the future direction of Iraqi politics, or materially mitigate sectarian hatreds, so as to convincingly help sketch out a new, long-term destiny for Iraq--one must likely conclude American soldiers are currently dying mostly in vain. Further, and (somewhat) relatedly, if you believe the ramifications of a gradual withdrawal aren't as horrific as many claim, you start thinking, to put it in the vernacular, that's it's time to fold 'em, rather than hold 'em, even if gradually over a year or two. That's, more or less, where we're at, at least in B.D's view. Let's start focusing intelligent policy-making energy on how best to accomplish an orderly withdrawal (hint: regional diplomacy with Iran and Syria are part of the puzzle...), rather than pursue 'hail-mary', chimerical visions of "victory" capital V.
Put differently, can Petraeus' men (even backed up by Ryan Crocker's Embassy) calibrate a balanced re-Baathification effort, or solve the competing claims to Kirkuk, or persuasively manage the tensions between the PKK and Turkey, or referee varied Shi'a factions fighting for hegemony in southern Iraq, or hammer out oil revenue sharing protocols, and so on? Oh, you say, be fair, don't erect cheap straw-men, these men are only meant to provide better security so as then to allow for better conditions for such compromises to take root, rather than creating them themselves. But these necessary conciliations and power-sharing arrangements will play out over decades, and we are increasingly but a passing diversion, wouldn't you say? We can't "win", per se, so shouldn't we think about how best to mitigate our losses, trying to preserve our remaining precious resources in blood and treasure now five years into a conflict that we blundered into with abject recklessness?
Posted by Gregory at July 21, 2007 02:51 AM
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.