July 21, 2007

Hold Forever, or Gradually Fold?

Tom Friedman writes: "(q)uitting Iraq would be morally and strategically devastating."

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.

First, check out this Thomas Ricks piece:

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.

More interestingly, read this lengthier piece too (PDF) (while it's a few months old, it remains very relevant):

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

Even if the Administration's obstinacy is relinquished enough to allow such a slow removal, it's hard not to think of how badly it might go: akin to someone banging a car off both sides of the driveway on the way in, and now having them back the car out the same driveway. You almost wonder if they'll refuse to pull out just to avoid another humiliating spectacle -- in just pure executional sloppiness and incompetence -- not to mention the imagery and symbolism of the act overall. Ugly spot we're in...

Posted by: ToddG at July 21, 2007 06:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know much about the new SecDef, but I haven't heard anything about him having any Rumsfeldian delusions. If Bush and Cheney let him get on with the job, we should be OK from that standpoint.

Posted by: David Tomlin at July 21, 2007 07:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Is Iraq really Korea all over again, a decades long commitment? Somehow, I doubt it, for a variety of reasons.

I wish I could agree.

I'd like to see more discussion of something that was mentioned at American Footprints. There is talk of concentrating US forces on a few bases and supplying them by air. It seems far-fetched to me, but it seems people who know more about such matters than I take it seriously.

It's hard to imagine the Green Zone being held that way, and our client government won't have much credibility when the only place safe for it is an American military base. But a Republican president wouldn't care, and at this point I'm not sure the Democrats are really any different.

Posted by: David Tomlin at July 21, 2007 08:19 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If the United States pulls out of Iraq prior to January 2009, it will mean only that George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, and the Neoconservative establishment were wrong, misguided, foolish, and displayed no regard for the value of human life.

Such an acknowledgment would be both embarrassing and forever tarnish the legacies of Bush and Cheney and severely cripple the Neoconservative bases of power at The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The New York Sun.

Posted by: Mark at July 21, 2007 03:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As people talk about the depature from Iraq, I am constantly remind of a television news report I saw in my youth (one that is now generally regarded as one of the best television news reports EVER to come out of the Vietnam War).

Watch the "Last Flight from DaNang" and then ponder how orderly our departure from Iraq would be.


Posted by: Andrew at July 21, 2007 04:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Lovely words. So well-written. But Bush, this man you twice helped elect to be our President, will not leave Iraq, because he does not admit his mistakes. All he and his many criminal enablers have to do is keep the lies alive for the next 18 months and then the failure of Iraq will be blamed on the next president and the traitorous Democrats. All other objectives are trivial--keep Bush's illusion alive.

Posted by: wtf at July 21, 2007 10:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As above.

It is very hard to imagine this administration ever agreeing to withdraw; their repeated kicking the can down the road and avoidance of responsibility make ensuring someone else is blamed for the defeat (withdrawal) seem more likely than them ever agreeing to pull out.

Again as mentioned above, if they're running the show during the pull-out there's no spinning (well they can and will try) who's fault it is; if they wait till (quite likely) a Dem is in office and pulls the troops, they [Bushco] likely will be depressingly effective in casting the blame on that hapless sucker.

Everyone knows they're going to do this, but it will still work. I will not be surprised at all if in a few years the "common citizen" thinks the Democrats lost the war by removing troops, never mind the past 4-5 years of events. This admin just might still win the domestic political war over the Iraq war in the long term. The public has a woefully short memory.

Posted by: ToddG at July 21, 2007 11:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

First off, I have a problem with the premise that "logistics likely require such a protracted [20 month] time-frame". This is from the article you cited...

The 20 ground combat brigades deployed here will fill 10,000 flatbed trucks and will take a year to move, logistics experts say. A full withdrawal, shipping home some 200,000 Americans and thousands of tons of equipment, dismantling dozens of American bases and disposing of tons of accumulated toxic waste, will take 20 months or longer, they estimate.

First off, FLATBED TRUCKS? What do they think this is, Northern Italy during WWII? Anyone who is using "moving troops out via flatbed trucks" as a metric with regard to Iraq is simply not playing with a full deck.

Secondly, why does it take a year to accomplish 10,000 trips? Iraq isn't that big.... so 200 "flatbed trucks", doing a minimum of 4 round trips a week, means it takes only 14 weeks to get troops out.

Then, of course, there is the fact that we managed to move 150,000 troops -- and their equipment---into Iraq in about a month. And the fact that we manage to rotate out approximately 13,000 troops out of Iraq each month -- and rotate in another 13,000 each month.

In short, the whole "it will take a year to get our troops out" trope is pure hogwash, and you ought to know that Greg. Its propaganda coming from people who don't want a quick redeployment, and not an actual estimate of what can be accomplished if people put their minds to it.

That being said, the question of whether we want a "long withdrawal" or a short one is important. I personally think that a (well planned) short withdrawal is better -- we are far less likely to be attacked during a withdrawal if we demonstrate a commitment to withdrawal --- the longer a withdrawal takes, the higher the likelihood of additional casualties.

As to the aftermath.... well, Petraeus has pretty much guaranteed that the post-withdrawal period will be bloodier than it would be otherwise. By concentrating on playing whack-a-mole with Al Qaida in Mesopotamia, and providing support and training to the "Baathist terrorists" who we now call "Sunni tribesmen", any hope that the Sunni minority will accept political domination by the Shiite majority without major bloodshed fades further into the distance with each passing day.

The truly pathetic thing is that in purely humanitarian terms, the best course of action may well be to wait until there is rational leadership in the White House before beginning the withdrawal, because Bush will inevitably screw it up. We need political leadership that understands that both Iran and Syria will have to play a significant role in stabilizing Iraq once we leave, and military leadership that understands that empowering Sunni tribal leaders guarantees the bloodiest civil war possible --- and neither Bush nor his lapdog Petraeus is capable of providing that leadership.

Posted by: p_lukasiak at July 22, 2007 01:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

At this point, the US is not only the most powerful terrorist militia in Iraq, but also allied to and supplying many of the other major terrorist militias, from the Kurds to the Sunni to the Shia.

So, in some way, the US stands to win and lose no matter what it does, because it is betting for all sides. :)

Posted by: Howard Lenient at July 22, 2007 11:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The flatbed trucks would be required to move the kit/stores/equipment that has piled up in Iraq, not the personnel.

Posted by: dan at July 22, 2007 04:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A whole lot of that equipment ought to be depreciated away.

If we compare the value of the equipment versus the value of spending 14 extra months in iraq carting it off....

Posted by: J Thomas at July 22, 2007 06:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We could get all our guys out, along with essentially all their combat power, in three weeks, and I'm being generous. That's all it took to get 150,000 troops in there in the first place, and then we were facing kinda-organized, semi-pro opposition: tank divisions.

We won't be facing any tank divisions on the way out.

As for all the crap we've piled up at our bases: cheaper to blow it up and leave immediately than slowly remove it, considering that it costs ten billion a month to stay. Spending 18 months, which would surely cost another hundred billion dollars and roughly another thousand KIA, would be damn foolishness.

My favorite comments was some soldier explaining how we had to painstakingly wash every piece of eqipment we bring back home in order to satisfy the Agriculture Department regs: it is to laugh.

The problem here is that our host doesn't know enough about war to even know when someone is blowing smoke at him. In this he is just like everyone else in public life. Clueless, all of them - how do you think we got into this mess?

Posted by: gcochran at July 22, 2007 08:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think we're leaving Iraq entirely for a long, long time. We may have an "end" to combat operations, whatever that can mean in the War on Terror (TM), but I think we intend to stay there in some capacity for decades to come. In Baghdad, in Kurdistan, maybe a few other places. It doesn't have anything to do with Bush now, it's about containing Iran. I suspect it was always about containing Iran. We don't need a functional government in Iraq, just a compliant one, and we've got that now. Why would we leave?

My theory, anyway, based on nothing more than reading and observation.

It's easy for me to say since it's not my ass sweating it out in Iraq, but I'm beginning to think a continuous U.S. presence there makes the most sense. We're already there. No point in leaving now just to see which of several nightmare scenarios ensues and then have to go back in and do something because we're the reason it happened in the first place. Maybe Iraq should be 3 separate countries, maybe that'd be the best result, if we can't get a stable, effective, non-dictator central government. If any good comes out of it at all, it won't be because of Bozo the Bush or his cronies, it'll be in spite of them. They'll take any credit, of course, because as always, they claim the credit but share none of the blame.

Posted by: LL at July 23, 2007 05:48 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suspect it was always about containing Iran.

Failing to contain Iran is one of the few things of which Saddam was not guilty.

Posted by: David Tomlin at July 23, 2007 09:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suspect it was always about containing Iran.

this is sheer nonsense. Iran is an essential player in achieving stability in Iraq -- and has legitimate interests in having a strong influence over Iraq's policies.

And Iran really doesn't need to be "contained" by the US.... Persians are an ethnic minority in a region full of Arabs, and as Shiites they are a religious minority in a region full of Sunnis. In other words, they are already contained.

The "Iran" problem is really the Bush problem -- as the NIE states, the US is much more likely to be targeted for terrorist attacks by Hizbollah if there is a perceived threat to Iran. Its Bush's constant sabre-rattling that make Iran a problem, and which has resulted in Iran's reported agressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the restoration of domestic authoritarianism.

When the US gets sane leadership that recognizes that hostility toward Iran is counter-productive to our own interests, we can move forward in the middle east.

Posted by: p_lukasiak at July 23, 2007 12:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

David Tomlin makes a fair point. No one on earth had the proven willingness to fight Iran no matter how many hundreds of thousands of casualties it took, as Saddam Hussein.

Posted by: Peter Roberts at July 23, 2007 02:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm not agreeing with our idiot in chief, nor saying that we should invade, bomb or otherwise harrass Iran. Just saying that we (meaning our govt) want to keep our eye on them, so to speak, a presence in N. Iraq, at least, and I think this played some part in our invasion of Iraq and means we will stay there for a good long while. Like I said, just a theory. I don't consider Iran much of a threat to us, but I don't run our government, so it doesn't really matter what I think. We can't do anything to prevent a "nuclear" Iran, and why should we, anyway? As a sovereign nation, they have the right to do whatever they want. We don't have to like it, but they don't seem to care whether we approve or not. That's kinda what "sovereign" means, isn't it? If another nation were to presume to dictate to us what kind of weapons we should have, we'd rightly tell them to go to hell. The Iranians are doing just that. Such a shame when other countries take all that talk about freedom and independence and sovereignty so seriously that they decline to cooperate with our plans for them.

And yeah, I know Iran is not a bastion of freedom, but their government seems to be a lot like ours, ie, they feel the freedom part should only apply to them, not their citizens.

Posted by: LL at July 23, 2007 04:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"You almost wonder if they'll refuse to pull out just to avoid another humiliating spectacle -- in just pure executional sloppiness and incompetence -- not to mention the imagery and symbolism of the act overall. Ugly spot we're in..."

Posted by: ToddG

It's been clear ever since Bush wiped his *ss with the ISG report, that his only play was to run out the presidential clock, and walk out claiming that 'we were winning when I left'. The surge (aka 'results in September') has now turned into 'September is too early'. The NYT has a front-page story about the latest plans, which talk about stability in the summer of '08. Which, next year, will turn into the summer of '09.

Posted by: Barry at July 24, 2007 04:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What follows is an accurate chronology of United States involvement in the arming of Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war 1980-88. It is a powerful indictment of the president Bush administration attempt to sell war as a component of his war on terrorism. It reveals US ambitions in Iraq to be just another chapter in the attempt to regain a foothold in the Mideast following the fall of the Shah of Iran.

Arming Iraq: A Chronology of U.S. Involvement

Whatever his complexes, Khomeini had no qualms about sending his followers, including young boys, off to their deaths for his greater glory. This callous disregard for human life was no less characteristic of Saddam Hussein. And, for that matter, it was also no less characteristic of much of the world community, which not only couldn't be bothered by a few hundred thousand Third World corpses, but tried to profit from the conflict.

The United States and Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988

It is strange, that after Al-Qheda’s 9-11 (A pre-dominantly Sunni Saudi and Pakistani operation) our Oil Elite is only concerned with Iran and Syria. Aren't these the nations which threaten Saudi Monarchs more than Americans?

Posted by: someotherdude at July 24, 2007 04:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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.

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