Next step in helping Iraqis: Set a withdrawal date

Washington's policy toward Iraq is dangerously adrift, showing no convincing signs of crushing or even containing the insurgency there. No insurgency can be beaten using military means only - and Washington has produced no plan for a political endgame capable of rallying the Iraqi citizenry around an anti-insurgent platform.

Some have argued that the US needs to "stay the course" in Iraq and increase the numbers of US troops there, if needed. But the US simply doesn't have enough troops to do this, or even to sustain present troop levels past the end of the summer. Anyway, for the US, Iraq is not primarily a military problem. It's a political problem - one that the Bush administration has shown itself incapable of resolving.

The interests of both Americans and Iraqis have been badly harmed by the three-year US occupation of Iraq (though far more Iraqis have suffered than Americans). If these two peoples are to be saved from further - even cataclysmic - harm, then Washington must quickly devise and implement a withdrawal strategy that's total, speedy, and generous to the Iraqi people.

Some Americans seem not to understand how deeply, in most postcolonial societies, including Iraq, the fears of foreign domination still linger. So long as President Bush refuses to set a date for withdrawal, these fears will continue to multiply. No Iraqi political forces, except some in the Kurdish north, can be expected to support a long-term US troop presence in their country. (Kurdish leaders who think this might be a good idea would do well to remember the lawless condition of Kosovo, six years after its partial "liberation" by Western armies.)

Here's how I'd answer the most common objections to such a proposal:

How can the US negotiate a withdrawal when the political forces inside Iraq are still so fragile and mutually contentious?

A negotiated withdrawal is generally better, but unilateral withdrawals, like Israel's 2000 exit from southern Lebanon, can work well, too. Despite Israeli fears of postwithdrawal mayhem and revenge (in Lebanon), none came to pass. Likewise, as Iraqis see the US starting to withdraw, political figures at all levels will undoubtedly be happy to make the arrangements needed for that process to continue. A prior US announcement of imminent total withdrawal will focus the minds of Iraqis considerably and show them they'll truly be masters of their own fate. They'll see the need to work together politically to figure out what follows. And they'll be far less hospitable to insurgents, especially those who get their impetus from the prospect of a prolonged foreign occupation.

But the Iraqi security forces seem so incapable of taking over!

The Iraqi troops' main problem is not one of raw military expertise. (Most Iraqi men have had years of military training.)It's one of unit cohesion and motivation. In other words, it's a political problem, and will become resolved as the political situation becomes clearer and more stable.

Won't the US strategic posture in the world be dented by a speedy withdrawal from Iraq?

Realistically, yes, a little. But steps can be taken to minimize this. As when President Reagan withdrew US troops from Lebanon in 1984, the maneuver can be labeled a "redeployment offshore." And if the various steps of the withdrawal are accompanied by generous reparations to Iraq, some Iraqis may stand up and laud American wisdom and foresight.

Washington's global strategic posture is already being eroded with every additional week US troops stay in Iraq. And imagine if there were one or more Beirut-style cataclysms inside Iraq, or an undignified Saigon-style exit.

But there might be a bloodbath in Iraq if we leave...

To argue this is to assume that the US presence is a stabilizing factor there. It's not. In the week of July 10 alone, 152 Iraqis died in four major acts of violence, and scores more in "smaller" incidents. It would be difficult for Iraqis to judge that the US presence has brought them stability.

If the US leaves, it's likely there will be some continuing violence in Iraq. But the US will no longer be responsible - either morally, or under international law - for that situation, as it now is. In addition, if the US exit policy is "generous," then the US can, working through the UN and other friends, deliver aid that Iraqis themselves can use to start the long-awaited rebuilding of their country. After Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the focus on postwithdrawal reconstruction did much to keep the border area calm. No reason the same could not happen in Iraq.

Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.

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