A new and heated debate has broken out in the United States about future policy toward Iraq. As so often happens, this argument is being conducted along partisan lines and over theories and symbols rather than focusing on the actual problem, more related to Washington, DC than to Baghdad, Iraq.
Most Democrats press for a quick withdrawal, even demanding a timetable; most Republicans argue that America must stay the course to prove U.S. credibility.
Democrats promoted the “great” idea of passing a congressional resolution to tell Iraqis to get their act together because the Americans will not be there forever. Talk about insensitivity! The Iraqis are doing most of the dying and almost all of the suffering. They don’t want to be dependent on the Americans and know how serious is the situation and how much they need to develop strong military forces.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration tries to persuade everyone that things are going pretty well and that the insurgents are gradually losing ground. This is a dangerous line to take since it only takes one major insurgent attack to belie this claim.
How about actually considering the situation on the ground? Here in rather blunt terms are the central issues:
First, as long as the United States is in Iraq it can neither win nor lose the war. There is no way that the insurgents will defeat the American forces. Indeed, they cannot even expand their base of support. Those committing terrorism are Arab Sunni Muslims who want to regain their community’s control over the country either by returning a Saddam-like regime or creating an Islamist-style one. The Kurds, Turcoman, and Shia Muslim Arabs who comprise more than 80 percent of Iraqis are not going to join them.
By the same token, however, American troops cannot defeat the insurgents. No matter how many raids they stage there will always be more people ready to fight due to ideological fanaticism, financial gain, and sheer perception of Sunni self-interest. Moreover, the United States is not prepared to do what would be necessary to root out this insurgency, which would involve such things as arresting thousands of people many of whom are innocent, ruthless interrogations, a certain amount of indiscriminate killing, and flooding whole neighborhoods with masses of soldiers.
So what’s a superpower to do? The alternatives its great political minds offer are either to cut and run or get trapped in a quagmire. Not much of a choice, is it?
It is a huge mistake to base one’s policy on finding an ideal solution based on debates that have more to do with partisan gain or ideological assumptions rather than an understanding of the issue. Clearly, a responsible strategy is to stay for the next eighteen months up to two years, do everything possible in that time to help the Iraqi government develop its own forces and a stable government, and then gradually pull out forces.
One assumption which must be questioned is the idea that because the American troops cannot put down the insurgency, the Iraqi forces are far weaker and certainly are incapable of defending themselves. Obviously, this idea is based on the current state of Iraq’s army, though after all much of the fault is due to the U.S. decision to dissolve the existing armed forces and not to the Iraqis themselves.
But it is also largely derived from past American experience with different kinds of situations usually outside the Middle East. The common pattern was that the United States was supporting a regime which was not popular, or at least could not mobilize many people, fighting a Communist insurgency which could fight anywhere in the country. The government simply could not exist without U.S. support.
This is not the case in Iraq, where the government will enjoy overwhelmingly popular support and be able to mobilize large numbers of armed men. In addition to the Kurdish militias there are also a lot of guns among the Shia. Having so long been the victims of terrorism, these communities are highly motivated to fight the insurgents. Indeed, if anything the presence of U.S. forces have held them back.
After an American withdrawal, the pro-regime forces are going to flatten the insurgents. They will not be gentle about it and the American military is not going to want to be there to take the blame for the human rights abuses that will no doubt occur. On a secondary level, an American departure is going to undermine the claims of the insurgents and reduce anger at the United States among Shia elements. It will also give the ruling Shia-Kurdish coalition a bigger incentive to try to reconcile those Sunnis willing to make a reasonable deal.
The bottom line is that the United States should not hurry up to leave Iraq but by the same token should not expect to be in Iraq too long. Pulling out in a reasonable time after Iraq has the chance to implement its new constitution, elect a government, and build up its forces is not something for the United States to fear.
The author is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His co-authored book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback and in Hebrew. His latest book, “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East,” will be published by Wiley in September.