Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Exit Signs are Flashing, Dead Ends They Won't Come to Life Anymore

Documents captured after 9/11 showed that bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck would be Afghanistan.

Bin Laden also hoped that such an entrapment would drain the United States financially. Many al-Qaeda documents refer to the importance of sapping American economic strength as a step toward reducing America’s ability to throw its weight around in the Middle East. - James Fallows, The Atlantic
“[T]here is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.” - George Kennan, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1966

To Mute Nero

While President Bush fiddles with the “extravagant” and the “unpromising,” Baghdad burns. Caught in that inferno are millions of Iraqis, over a hundred and fifty thousand American soldiers and tens of thousands of other foreign and domestic personnel. Sacrificed on that pyre are this nation’s treasured resources and good standing - costs so staggering that they defy an accurate accounting.

Some point to the ongoing tragedy and potential for further bloodshed as reasons why we can't disengage, but these concerns - while perhaps well intentioned - fail to comprehend the limitations of our power to rectify the damage we have wrought. We cannot, through force of will or arms, save Iraq from the conflicts embroiling it. The past four-plus years should serve as a useful instructive to anyone that has yet to appreciate this lesson (though history has myriad examples with which to tutor the nonbeliever). The political agendas of the various competing Iraqi factions are separate and opposed to our own in many respects. Other than opportunistic marriages of convenience, we have no allies in Iraq, nor can we force any groups to align with us. For the foreseeable future, the civil wars will play out until the various sides are exhausted enough to view the adoption of political means as preferable, and concession and compromise as necessary. We cannot make that choice for them - and are in fact stoking the violence ourselves.

While we can't save Iraq by staying, we may be able to help by withdrawing. At the very least, we can stop the hemorrhaging of US assets and blood. Therefore, it is our moral responsibility to begin exploring and crafting a sound policy for military disengagement. I am not operating under any illusions with respect to President Bush's willingness to adopt such a plan. Still, a detailed plan for withdrawal will be a necessary and useful adjunct to the political pressure that is mounting - and a useful response to an all-too-frequently shallow press corp intent on depicting the war's opposition as rudderless and unserious. A viable plan will give us a road map to go along with a slogan.

If we build it, they will come. Home.

The Quick and the Dead

Former Army Officer Phil Carter laid out one of the more intriguing plans for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. According to Carter, the bulk of this feat could be accomplished in a mere matter of weeks – spearheaded by an “invasion in reverse” whereby our troops would follow the same path south that was taken northward during the initial invasion (fighting all the way if necessary, and abandoning/sabotaging what assets couldn't make the journey). While Carter’s plan has a certain neatness and pace that is appealing, a slower, more deliberate withdrawal would better serve our long-term interests. Such a gradual approach could motivate the various Iraqi groups to make a last-ditch effort to establish a less destructive modus vivendi, while giving us an opportunity to help out many of the Iraqis caught in the crossfire. Therefore, we should follow a timeline that will see all U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq over the course of 10-14 months, while we hew to the road map set forth below.

The first step should be to encourage a new round of provincial elections. In the last local elections held in January 2005, the Sunni parties boycotted in protest. Thus, many predominately Sunni areas now have Shiite’s in charge of local government. It is important to reverse this dynamic and give Sunnis a greater sense of empowerment. These elections would help to establish a more widespread Sunni political representation that can begin to craft a unified voice with Sunni insurgents - who have, promisingly, begun forming a new political front. Such an alignment of political and armed wings is one of the requirements for eventually forging viable power-sharing arrangements (excluding the al-Qaeda inspired/affiliated combatants).

The next step should be to offer our assistance to any internally displaced Iraqis that wish to move to less hostile environs within Iraq. While some may view this proposal as encouraging ethnic cleansing, the fact is that violent ethnic cleansing is currently taking place in Iraq regardless. While we haven’t been able to prevent that, our assistance to Iraqis who wish to move voluntarily could provide a safe and organized evacuation as an alternative to the current haphazard flight under threat of violence – with Iraqis forced to abandon valuables and pay exorbitant amounts of money for transportation and resettlement.

Next, we must offer asylum to those courageous Iraqis who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, in order to cooperate with coalition authorities. Currently, the Bush administration is offering a paltry handful of visas to these imperiled Iraqi citizens. Instead, we should offer visas to the thousands of Iraqis who will be increasingly vulnerable post-withdrawal due to the stigma they carry as “collaborators.”

While the extent to which Iraq’s neighbors are interfering in Iraq to foster instability and violence is a matter of much debate, there is less controversy surrounding the notion that neighboring regimes could play a very constructive role in terms of preventing a spread of the violence from Iraq, and encouraging the various warring groups to find a sustainable model for conflict resolution. The prospects for coordinating and marshaling such a regional framework are not exactly promising, but we may enjoy a few advantages.

Even troublemakers like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have an interest in keeping an Iraqi civil war from erupting into a regional war that would likely suck each party in at staggering costs in terms of lives lost and economic resources chewed up. Those can be powerful motivators - especially when the competing interest of seeing us drained of resources and weakened becomes moot due to our imminent withdrawal. We should try to capitalize on the insecurity and fear that our withdrawal could instill by encouraging the cooperation of interested parties. The ability to use this final bit of leverage is part of why withdrawing in a deliberate fashion is preferable to the lightning approach outlined by Phil Carter.

Of course, obtaining the cooperation of nations like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia will come at a cost above and beyond what each would perceive as the benefit of containing the neighboring conflict. Iran might seek non-aggression assurances, normalization of relations and possibly some sort of concession on their nuclear program. Syria would also likely push for normalization, an end to the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and possibly the return of all or some of the Golan Heights. These demands may prove to be too bitter a pill to swallow for this or a subsequent administration (Israel as well in terms of Golan), but if the results of regional war following our withdrawal from Iraq are as dire as predicted, then it might be time to hold our noses on at least some of those demands.

As a necessary counterpart to the regional framework, the U.S. should court the United Nations and other capable NGOs in order to enlist their support in handling the potential refugee crises (setting up catch-basins along Iraq’s borders), and as possible contributors to peacekeeping missions down the road when a defensible peace materializes.

Regardless, and in tandem, we must re-dedicate ourselves to restarting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a lynchpin to so many of our efforts in the region including, but by no means limited to, gaining the support of Iraq’s neighbors. Progress on this front would also help to lessen the impact of the propaganda victory claimed by al-Qaeda upon our departure. Positive momentum in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would diminish one of al-Qaeda’s most powerful recruitment tools, and help to lower the temperature in the region generally speaking at a time when widespread escalation of conflict is a paramount strategic concern.

Ain't No Half-Steppin'

Now that we’ve looked at some measures that should be taken, let’s turn to the “what not to do” list. First and foremost, we should not leave troops behind to continue to train Iraqi forces. The Iraqi military and police forces are organs of the Iraqi government, which itself is dominated by combatants in Iraq’s civil war. There isn't any substantial Iraqi military or police force that is fighting for the exalted concept of “Iraq the nation,” nor can we train them to espouse such an outlook. Thus, we would be training and equipping soldiers who would be engaged in the very civil war that we are trying to end, and at enormous cost, for we would need to leave behind a large presence of troops to support and protect the trainers.

Proponents of leaving behind a residual force in Iraq also claim that these troops could defend Iraq from incursions by its neighbors. This argument is transparently weak. Which of Iraq's neighbors would we supposedly be deterring? Most of the perimeter nations (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria) do not possess a military capable of seizing foreign territory - or an economy that could handle conquest. And in case any one failed to notice, the Iraqis don't seem to take to kindly to foreign interlopers. Are we really to believe that where the US military has failed in terms of establishing a sustainable presence in Iraq, the Jordanian or Syrian army will succeed?

One possible rejoinder would be that Iran could attempt such an aggressive annexation, and that it's military might have the muscle to succeed. Aside from the fact that a cash-strapped Iran could ill-afford the expense (and will have influence/access through its Shiite allies regardless), we can dissuade such an act by sending a very clear message that any foreign power (other than us) that tries to infringe upon Iraq's territorial integrity would receive a healthy dose of shock and awe.

The only other credible military threat would be the Turks, who might feel pressed to cross Iraq's northern border to take on the Kurds more than the current round of shelling. However, our presence is not preventing the Turks from encroaching on Kurdistan today, so there's no reason to believe we will serve as such a deterrent in the future. In response, some have suggested putting a residual force of troops in Iraqi Kurdistan itself. This, however, would put us in a lose-lose position where we would get further entangled in intractable, unwinnable local conflicts of dubious strategic importance to us.

This same cost-benefit analysis should also be applied to plans to leave behind a large embassy staff and/or al-Qaeda hunting teams. In each case, the active forces would need re-supply, support and protection troops. Thus, missions that would only require small units to handle discrete objectives would end up requiring tens of thousands of troops in ancillary roles, thus ensuring that our overall troops presence would remain at unsustainable levels. A better proposal would be to work with neighbors like Jordan that may allow us to house clandestine garrisons that could partake in limited anti-al-Qaeda activities when needed, and keep the bulk of forces over the horizon. As for the embassy, manning that post will have to wait for a time when protecting it will not require such a muscular presence in a country where exactly such a presence has been the source of much pain to us and the Iraqis alike. Beware of any and all plans that call for a continued military presence in Iraq.

Finally, some observers have put forth plans for partitioning Iraq (including soft partitions) which would entail separating Iraq into three separate countries divided along ethnic/sectarian lines with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions (or three distinct regions with a very weak central government in the case of a “soft partition”). The benefits of such a plan remain doubtful at best due to the fact that the scarcity of resources, and the respective claims to dominion over all of “Iraq” which are adding fuel to the civil wars, would not be remedied by such a partition (with the relatively oil-poor western region going to the already aggrieved Sunnis). A formal partition could actually harden attitudes and set up future wars, with states fighting for the same limited resources being vied for in the current civil wars. Not to mention that, regardless of the merits, such a major decision should be left to the Iraqis and not be imposed by an outside occupier. If the Iraqis so decide, we should provide assistance.

I Grow Weary of the End

These are not perfect solutions to the Iraq quagmire, but there are none out there. All options will lead to violence and suffering for the already beleaguered Iraqi people, and negatively impact our interests - even and especially escalation or simply remaining in Iraq. Some would point to the above suggestions and argue that withdrawal will not compel Iraq's warring factions to pursue peaceful resolution, or get Iraq's neighbors to contribute positively. To the extent those arguments have merit, though, they would apply even if we keep troops in Iraq for the next decade (which could cost upwards of $5-10 trillion dollars and 10,000 more lives). Even if this last gambit fails, we can avoid the economic costs of remaining in Iraq and the enormous strain on our all volunteer army (not to mention the diplomatic costs, blight on our image and distraction from other important foreign and domestic exigencies).

We must confront the fact that we lack the lever with which to pry victory from the clenched jaws of defeat. With this in mind, we must not make the perfect the enemy of the less calamitous. It is better, in the end, to liquidate our unsound position than to cling to any remnant of this failure for fear of acknowledging what it is.

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