Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Bad Logic of Withdrawal (US, World)

It is a widely held assumption among politicians and commentators from all parts of the ideological spectrum that immediate withdrawal from Iraq is a bad idea for a number of commonly agree reasons. The view is most forcefully put by those who supported/orchestrated the war who insist that we must 'stay the course' lest 'the terrorists win' and allow Iraq to turn into a 'breeding ground for terrorists', but is also agreed by many who opposed the war who claim we have a duty to ensure that we don't allow the country to become a failed state. There are dissenters on both sides of course – isolationist/America-first conservatives such as Rep. Walter 'Freedom Fries' Jones and those on the left who don't believe the US military could possibly be a force for good, but it is a widely held view.

Generally I'm inclined to agree with the consensus when one has been reached on such a contentious issue as this. A lot of people who are saying that troops should remain in Iraq, at least for the short term, have no real vested interest in doing so and, indeed, given the polls on the issue many politicians could probably take a populist position on this and increase their electoral appeal. However, it's always a good idea to critically examine these sorts of things and Charles linked an article by Robert Parry in the comments which addresses all the arguments in favour of 'staying the course' and claims that short-term withdrawal from Iraq would be in the best interests of Iraqis.

He first correctly identifies the nature of the insurgency in Iraq, namely that it is made up of two distinct groups who are only working together due to the 'an enemy of my enemy is my friend' principle. One group is the primarily foreign group ledy by Aby Musab al-Zarquawi which has named itself al-Quaeda in Mesopotamia. This group is thought to be responsible for the worst of the civilian attacks in the country – bombs in crowds of religious pilgrims, massacres in the queues of people looking to join the Iraqi army/police force, car bombs in crowded market places and so on.

The other group is made up of locals – ex-Baathists and Sunni hardliners dismayed at the prospect that a new democratic Iraq will be ruled by the Shiite majority for the first time since the Sunni-aligned Saddam took power. While some attacks on Shiite civilian populations are undoubtedly attributable to this group, it seems their primary modus operandi is attacking military convoys with IUDs and rocket/mortar/small-arm attacks on military installations. Some violent clashes have been recorded between these two groups, but for the main their interests are aligned due to their desire to disrupt the new, US-protected, political order.

Parry claims that a withdrawal would effectively end the insurgency by removing this common motivation:
Without the presence of US troops, Zarqawi could lose his raison d'etre, his manpower and protection from Sunny insurgents who tolerate himi now only because they're in a desperate struggle against both the powerful American military and the Shiite majority.

And, for good measure, he puts the blame for our politicians for not seeing this on Bush's political nous:
By lumping the two forces together as 'terrorists,' Bush again has shaped the Washington debate much as he did in 2002 and early 2003 when he and Vice President Dick Cheney morphed Iraq's secular dictator Saddam Hussein into al-Quadea leader Osama Bin Laden.

The problem with this is that Zarqawi's enemy isn't only the US troops in the country – what he and his troops are fighting against, now, is a democratic political order which has the potential to change the status-quo in Arabic politics. One only needs to look at their choice of targets to realise this. They aren't directing most of their attacks at westerners in the country, they're attacking civilians, social infrastructure such as electricity generators and oil lines and groups of people who are aligned with the new political order (volunteers for the army, interpreters, local police etc). Yes, they are also taking foreign contractors hostage and massacring them when the opportunity arises, but the only reason we think that westerners are their main targets is because it is these attacks which get the most attention in our press. The (hopefully) emerging democratic political order in Iraq is intolerable to Zarqawi and his followers as they associate it with western values.

Simply getting US troops out of a country doesn't stop the political order in that country being the target of al-Quaeda. Even as US troop presence in Saudi Arabia was being scaled down due to the Iraq war, al-Quaeda attacks in Ridiah and elsewhere intensified because the Saudi royals were at least realising the threat posed by its sponsorship of **Wahabism** and were beginning to crack down on extremist elements. If US troops were to withdraw from Iraq before local security forces could deal with Zarqawi's jihadists, it would be a disaster for the Iraqi people. First, there would be an emboldening effect similar to that inspired by US withdrawals in Lebanon and Somalia, both of which inspired radical Islamists to further violence and gave them the impression that Democracies were easily cowed when troops started dying. Second, their ultimate objective – the destruction of the emerging political order in Iraq – would be even easier to achieve. They aren't interested in simply killing US soldiers, or else that would be where their attacks were aimed. So taking the troops out wouldn't reduce their target opportunities, it would only make them easier to hit.

Parry also misconstrues the situation between the Shiites and Sunnis:
As the current impasse over a new constitution shows, the Shiites and Kurds see little reason to make significant concessions to the Sunnis because the American military continues to tilt the power balance in favor of the Shiite-Kurdish side.

Bollocks. The fact that the Shiites and Kurds make up the majority of the population, have territorial control over the major oil reserves in the country and have disproportional representation in parliament due to the Sunni boycott of the January elections tilt the balance of power in their favour. The fact that America's primary interest is in securing a united and peaceful Iraq is the primary, perhaps the only, reason that the Sunnis have any political power in the current system. While the Shiite and Kurd militias are currently, by and large, restraining themselves from attacking the Sunnis, such restraint couldn't be expected to continue without the security provided by the US troops. The overthrowing of Sadaam's regime by the US forces is obviously the catalytic cause of the current Shiite-Kurdish power, I can't see why Parry claims it is a reason for their continuing power.

He also misconstrues the constitutional situation:
[W]hen US Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad entered the Iraqi assembly for some eleventh-hour arm-twisting before the Aug. 15 deadline for completing work on the new constitution, the intervention had little effect.

I pointed out in my last post that this intervention happened because the negotiating parties asked for it - it wasn't an attempt by the US at strong-arming the process. He is also saying that the impasse is caused by the Shiite/Kurd faction having too much (US-backed) power, which is also wrong. The impasse is only possible because the Sunni's have, effectively, veto power over the constitution due to the way the voting on it is structured. However, this section of the interim constitution could be amended by the Shiite/Kurd majority whenever they wanted to – that they don't is testament to restraint on their behalf which is encouraged by the US presence. The news that the Sunni delegation is pleading with the US and other to stop the Shiites/Kurds steamrolling them further confirms my impression that the US presence is the Sunii's best hope for a good political solution.

The other substantive point he makes is an attempt to deny the moral imperative of the "if you broke it, you fix it" rule. He responds by saying that "Haven’t you done enough damage already?" is a more appropriate phrase to use. But this rests upon what I believe to be his false assumption that a continuing US and foreign presence will do more harm than good in Iraq so this is just restating the basic question.

The rest of the article is filled with random Bush and America bashing and while some of it might be justified, none of it is actually relevant to his central argument. In short I think the withdrawal argument is based on a misunderstanding of the motivating factors behind the insurgency. A better option would be to attempt to defuse the local insurgency by providing a credible indication that US troops are not there for the long term and that the Sunnis will have a place in the new political order. While the latter will be, eventually, determined by the constitutional process the US does have more direct control over the former. Announcing and sticking to a staged mid-long term withdrawal plan and taking a long hard look at whether or not building some really big, permanent, military bases is really smart would seem a good strategy. I realise this strategy doesn't seem to the one being embarked upon by Bush, but that doesn't mean that an immediate withdrawal is the best option.


  • A lot of this is good analysis. You obviously have a good handle on Iraqi politics. Good job.

    Coming of age in the Vietnam era, I am haunted by the parallels to Iraq. In Nam, the situation never got better and delaying withdrawal simply cost more lives. But perhaps Iraq will be different and a staged withdrawal may prove possible. I'd certainly like to hear a plan that will reverse the deterioration of the situation there.

    I think Parry is correct that sometimes the one who broke it is not the best one to fix it. (Incidentally, you overlooked that part of the article when you referred to 'his false assumption that a continuing US and foreign presence will do more harm than good in Iraq'. It is not the foreign part that is doing the harm.) I'm afraid we have so alienated the rest of the world that the saying 'you made your bed now lay in it' will be more apt.

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 3:39 PM  

  • Thanks :)

    I'm not sure whether me not having lived under the shadow of Vietnam is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, I don't get understandably strong flashbacks, on the other hand perhaps I lack historical perspective. I hope and I think this situation is different enough that Vietnam is an imperfect metaphor.

    I got a different feeling of what Parry was saying in that part of the article. I thought he was saying that it was best for the US to just get out before it does any more damage through its presence and let the Iraqis take over. I agree that a more internationally flavoured force might be a good idea (see: Afghanistan) but it's obviously fairly unlikely at this stage.

    And I think your saying is more apt than either of the ones he brought up :)

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 3:58 PM  

  • here is the problem. military operations are undertaken to establish control over a specific piece of territory. the notion that part of the military plan is to relinquish control over said territory is absurd. "exit strategy" is simply an orwellian term which was dreamed up by politicians in the post vietnam excuse making era.

    militarily, there is always an exit strategy. it involves ships and airplanes and logistical issues. it can be executed at any time. it won't happen until the political costs exceed the political benefits as calculated by our corrupt politicians.

    By Blogger Olaf glad and big, at 7:38 PM  

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