September 10, 2004
Time to consider Iraq withdrawal
This week a macabre milestone was passed in Iraq. More
than 1,000 American soldiers have now been killed since
the US-led invasion of the country began nearly 18
months ago. The overwhelming majority lost their lives
after President George W. Bush declared major combat
operations over in his now infamous "Mission
Accomplished" photo-opportunity in May last year.
In that time, an unknown number of mostly civilian
Iraqis, certainly not less than 10,000 and possibly
three times that number, have perished, and hundreds
more are dying each week. After an invasion and
occupation that promised them freedom, Iraqis have seen
their security evaporate, their state smashed and their
country fragment into a lawless archipelago ruled by
militias, bandits and kidnappers.
The transitional political process, designed to lead to
constituent assembly and general elections next year,
has been undermined because the nervous US-dominated
occupation authority has insisted on hand-picking
various permutations of interim Iraqi governors, mostly
exiles or expatriates with no standing among their
people. Whatever Iraqis thought about the Americans on
their way in - and it was never what these emigré
politicians told Washington they would be thinking - an
overwhelming majority now views US forces as occupiers
rather than liberators and wants them out.
The aftermath of a war won so quickly has been so
utterly bungled, moreover, that the US is down to the
last vestiges of its always exiguous allied support, at
the time when Iraq needs every bit of help it can get.
The occupation has lost control of big swathes of the
country. Having decided that all those who lived and
worked in Iraq under Saddam Hussein bore some degree of
collective guilt, Washington's viceroys purged the
country's armed forces, civil service and institutions
to a degree that broke the back of the state,
marginalised internal political forces, sidelined many
with the skills to rebuild Iraq's services and
utilities and, of course, fuelled an insurgency US
forces have yet to identify accurately, let alone get
to grips with.
There are signs that US officials are beginning to "get
it" - in the phrase Donald Rumsfeld, US defence
secretary, patronisingly used this week to characterise
Iraqis' grasp of the security situation. But if they
are increasingly aware that what they have created in
Iraq is a disaster, they seem at a loss to know what to
do about it.
The core question to be addressed is this: is the
continuing presence of US military forces in Iraq part
of the solution or part of the problem?
As occupying power, the US bears responsibility for
Iraq under international law, and is duty-bound to try
to leave it in better shape than it found it. But there
is no sign of that happening.
The time has therefore come to consider whether a
structured withdrawal of US and remaining allied
troops, in tandem with a workable handover of security
to Iraqi forces and a legitimate and inclusive
political process, can chart a path out of the current
Faced with a withdrawal timetable, Iraqis who currently
feel helpless will know that the opportunity to craft a
better future lies in their hands.
Take security. Iraqi forces are being rebuilt to take
over front-line tasks. This is slow work, but that is
not the real problem. It is that those forces already
trained cannot stand alongside a US military that daily
rains thousands of tonnes of projectiles and high
explosives on their compatriots. Each time there is a
siege of Fallujah or Najaf, with the US using firepower
that kills civilians by the hundred, these Iraqi forces
melt away. Until eventual withdrawal, there would have
to be a policy of military restraint, imposed above all
on those US commanders who have operated without
reference to their own superiors, let alone the
notionally sovereign Iraqi government.
Politically, if next year's elections are to have any
chance of reflecting the will of the Iraqi people, the
process must be opened up. Last month's national
conference or proto-assembly was monopolised by
expatriate politicians aligned with the interim
government of Iyad Allawi. The only way national
coalitions can be woven from Iraq's religious and
ethnic patchwork is by including the opposition to the
occupation. That means negotiating with the insurgents,
probably through religious leaders of the stature of
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It also means an amnesty,
which should help Iraqi authorities acquire the
legitimacy to crush jihadist and other hold-outs.
Ideally, the US would accompany withdrawal by stating
it has no intention of establishing bases in Iraq, and
instead wishes to facilitate regional security
agreements. That would be more stabilising than the
current policy of bullying neighbours such as Iran and
Syria, whose borders with Iraq the US in any case
None of this will be less than messy. But whether Mr
Bush or John Kerry wins the upcoming election, the US
will eventually have to do something like this. Chaos
is a great risk, and occupiers through the ages have
pointed to that risk as their reason for staying put.
But chaos is already here, and the power that is in
large part responsible for it must start preparing now
to step aside and let the Iraqis try to emerge from it.