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Thursday, February 15, 2007


Withdrawal is victory?

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, February 15, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
I hate that there seem to be no good options in Iraq. Staying? Surging? Withdrawing? All options seem to do nothing to address the underlying problem of violence and strife.

But one of my assumptions has been that however bad things are, they could be worse - and would indeed be worse should US forces leave. Which is why I've been against outright withdrawal. I do unequivocally reject the argument that opposing a "surge" in troops amounts to endorsing failure, an argument that the Administration's water carriers have been making with ferocity. If you can't acknowledge that liberals debating the war do so out of the same desire a solution that results in less threat to the United States, and instead bleat about "victory" without thought to what form it must take as constrained by events on the ground, then we can't and shouldn't debate it. We are on different planets. Best of luck to you.

But surges aside, withdrawal is really the important issue, and on that one I've bought into the standard argument that chaos will ensue. But will it? To be honest I have never evaluated that assumption critically. Shouldn't there be some discussion on that?

Yes. Robert Dreyfuss provides it. In an article at WM he argues essentially that the presence of US forces at present does nothing to materially impede ethnic violence anyway:

First, the United States is doing little, if anything, to restrain ethnic cleansing, either in Baghdad neighborhoods or Sunni and Shiite enclaves surrounding the capital. Indeed, under its current policy, the United States is arming and training one side in a civil war by bolstering the Shiite-controlled army and police.

In theory, Baghdad is roughly divided into Shiite east Baghdad on one side of the Tigris River, and Sunni west Baghdad on the other side. But in isolated neighborhoods such as Adhamiya, a Sunni part of east Baghdad, and Kadhimiya, a Shiite enclave in west Baghdad, ugly ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace. The same is true along a necklace of Sunni towns south of the capital, in an area that is predominantly Shiite; in mixed Sunni-Shiite towns such as Samarra, the largest city of predominantly Sunni Salahuddin Province, north of Baghdad; and in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. In these areas, it is facile to assert that U.S. troops are restraining the death squads and religiously inspired killers on both sides. And it would be impossible for us to do so even with a much greater increase in American troops than the president has called for.

Plus, the violence is resource-limited and can't sustain itself:

Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites have much in the way of armor or heavy weapons—tanks, major artillery, helicopters, and the like. Without heavy weaponry, neither side can take the war deep into the other’s territory. “They’re not good on offense,” says Warren Marik, a retired CIA officer who worked in Iraq in the 1990s. “They can’t assault positions.” Shiites may have numbers on their side. But because the Sunnis have most of Iraq’s former army officers, and their resistance militia boasts thousands of highly trained soldiers, they’re unlikely
to be overrun by the Shiite majority. Equally, the minority Sunnis won’t be able to seize Shiite parts of Baghdad or major Shiite cities in the south. Presuming neither side gets its hands on heavy weapons, once you take U.S. forces out of the equation the Sunnis and Shiites would ultimately reach an impasse.

Further, the imminent issue of Kirkuk also owes much to the American presence:

in the event of an American withdrawal, the Kurds would find it exceedingly difficult either to take Kirkuk or to declare independence. An independent Kurdistan would be landlocked, surrounded by hostile nations, and would possess a weak paramilitary army incapable of matching Iran, Arab Iraq, or Turkey. If Kurdistan were to secede without gaining Kirkuk’s oil, it would not be an economically viable nation. Even with the oil, the Kurds would have to depend on pipelines through Iraq and Turkey to export any significant amount. Nor would Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority, stand for a breakaway Kurdish state, and the Kurds know that the Turkish armed forces would overwhelm them.

Conversely, under the U.S. occupation—or, perhaps, because of it—the Kurds apparently feel emboldened to press their advantage in Kirkuk, despite the dire consequences. And if the United States were to adopt the idea floated by some in Washington of building permanent bases in Kurdistan, it would embolden the Kurds further. (The threat of a Turkish invasion is the chief deterrent to any move by the Kurds against Kirkuk, but as long as the United States maintains a presence in Kurdistan, the Turks will be reluctant to check the Kurds, for fear of running into U.S. troops.) Thus, by staying or by creating bases in Kurdistan, the United States is more likely to foster a Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq.

And finally, let's not dismiss the forces of unity that Do exist within Iraq and which can serve as the basis for reconciliation:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, Iraq is not a make-believe state cobbled together after World War I, but a nation united by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just as the Nile unites Egypt. Historically, the vast majority of Iraqis have not primarily identified themselves according to their sect, as Sunnis or Shiites. Of course, as the civil war escalates, more Iraqis are identifying by sect, and tensions are worsening. But it is not too late to resurrect some of the comity that once existed. The current war is not a conflict between all Sunnis and all Shiites, but a violent clash of extremist paramilitary armies. Most Iraqis do not support the extremists on either side. According to a poll conducted in June 2006 by the International Republican Institute, “seventy-eight per cent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shiites, opposed the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.”

In addition, the country’s vast oil reserves, conceivably the world’s largest, could help hold Iraq together. Iraqi politicians are currently devising a law that would ratify the central government’s control of all of the country’s oil wealth. Even the corruption that now cripples Iraq tethers Iraqi political leaders to the central government and to the idea of Iraq as a nation-state. “None of the big players really want civil war,” says an Iraqi military official closely affiliated with Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. “None of them want to give up the regular flow of funds that they get now from corruption.”

What most Iraqis do seem to want, according to numerous polls, is for American forces to leave.

Dreyfuss does mention President Bush's main argument that Al Qaeda will set up shop in Iraq, and rightly dismisses it. Abu Aardvark has been making the same argument numerous times that the threat of an Al-Qaedastan is simply not credible. Al-Qaeda benefits immensely from US forces' presence in Iraq and withdrawal WILL deal Al-Q a blow; that point simply cannot be denied.

There's a lot more in Dreyfus' article that really should be read in full; most people simply make the assumption that withdrawal is equivalent to failure. But if withdrawal does remove obstacles to Iraqi stability and security, then withdrawal really means victory. It's a question that the intellectually honest amongst us must grapple with to justify our assumptions of doom.

UPDATE: Note that I still will not even consider total withdrawal from Iraq, even though that and staying the course are the binary options presented by "victory" partisans. Is there an argument for partial withdrawal? Indeed. Here are important pieces that describe alternative pathways to victory that allow for significant troop reductions but also keep significant forces in theater, only with a true change in strategy.

Abandon the superfortresses by Phil Carter (also this related piece)

more recent piece about Four separate wars in Iraq by Phil Carter

Rep Hank Johnson's proposal

Fareed Zakaria's proposal

John Edwards' plan



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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.