A Real Benchmark for Leaving Iraq
[For a more recent discussion of two other benchmarks—our own casualty rate and Iraqi provincial elections—click here.]
Like many unnecessary conflicts, the current partisan stalemate over Iraq is the product of muddled thinking. Some Democrats want to get out ASAP. The more thoughtful among them have a vague sense that doing so might leave some important task undone, but they don’t quite know what that task is. Republicans want to “win” by “finishing the job,” but they can’t say exactly what job needs finishing.
The source of all the political dithering is clear: the lack of a national consensus—even among our leaders—on why we are still in Iraq and what we hope to achieve before we go. If we can't agree on the goal, can we ever agree on the means?
We invaded Iraq to sequester or destroy weapons of mass destruction. There were none. Our secondary goal was to depose Saddam. He and his sons are dead, and there is virtually no chance of a resurgent Sunni Baathist dictatorship. So our two principal objectives for the invasion have been accomplished.
As time went on, new objectives arose. Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democratic model for the Middle East. Now even he has abandoned that objective as utopian and unrealistic.
I and others have suggested another objective: guarding the vital oil fields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia against invasion, revolution or widespread sabotage. But we can do that much more cheaply, bloodlessly and easily by maintaining garrisons in friendly territory, like Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan. (In the long run, we can do even more by adopting a rational national energy policy, but that's another story.)
We don’t need to keep our troops on the front lines of a sectarian civil war in order to protect the oil fields. In fact, miring our troops in a civil war prevents them from responding quickly and effectively to threats against the oil infrastructure.
A more recent motive for remaining is guilt. We aren’t directly responsible for the current sectarian mayhem; Al Qaeda is. Fomenting civil war was and is its self-professed strategy. Yet the civil war was also an unintended consequence of our invasion, and so we feel responsible.
Feelings of guilt do not make rational policy. The struggle between Shia and Sunni has been going on for over 1,300 years. We didn’t start it, and we won’t finish it. It won’t stop until Muslims everywhere understand that, were he alive today, Mohammed would rather see all his disciples living in cooperation, peace and prosperity than in constant war and misery. We may have helped ignite the current flareup, but there is little we can do to put out embers of conflict that have been smoldering for over a millennium.
Were we to try to tamp down the flareup that came on our watch, how would we decide how much is enough? A spark—the bombing of the Samarra mosque—is all it took to start this civil war. Its resurgence would always be just another spark away. That’s why most Democrats see a commitment to “civil peace” in the abstract as unacceptably open-ended. If we really seek to achieve that goal with our troops’ blood, we might be there for decades, maybe for centuries.
So far, all the possible objectives of remaining are (1) already accomplished, (2) utopian and unrealistic, (3) better accomplished by other means, or (4) impossibly open-ended. Is there a valid objective whose achievement can be assessed precisely and which we can meet in a reasonable time?
There is indeed. It appears as a backdrop to virtually all the Bush Administration’s pronouncements on Iraq, from Dick Cheney’s “big lie” that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated before 9/11 to the president’s insistence that Iraq is a key battleground in the “war on terror.” The objective is simple: make sure that Al Qaeda gains no base in Iraq.
That is an objective on which we all can agree. No one wants Iraq, with its central location, industrial infrastructure and oil fields, becoming a base or haven for Al Qaeda.
What most people don’t realize is how close we are to achieving that objective right now.
Iraq’s Shiites now have the upper hand in numbers, territory and weaponry (provided by us). They hate Al Qaeda much more than they hate us. Al Qaeda has been a Sunni operation from the start, and it has spent the last two years in Iraq systematically blowing Shiites up. There is no way that Al Qaeda is ever going to have a secure base of operations in a Shiite or Shiite-dominated Iraq. That’s partly why we appear to be backing the Shiites.
As for the Iraqi Sunni, their cooperation with Al Qaeda has been a temporary marriage of convenience—one which they increasingly appear to regret. They tried to use foreign jihadis to create the kind of chaos that once caused Iraqis to back a Sunni strongman like Saddam. Now many Sunni are beginning to realize that sectarian mayhem is not a realistic or happy solution to their minority status. In increasing numbers, Sunni sheikhs are cooperating with our troops to rid themselves of the cancer of Al Qaeda.
The Kurds, of course, have no truck with Al Qaeda and never did. Their peshmerga fighters are disciplined and effective, and they have been staunch allies in the war against Al Qaeda. They have failed only when the Sunni minority in their territory aided the terrorists, in the mistaken belief that sectarian mayhem would promote their cause.
Among the many blunders of Bush’s astoundingly inept foreign policy is failing to realize that we are not Al Qaeda’s only enemy. The Egyptians and Saudis tried to kill bin Laden. Even the Taliban almost handed him over, until bin Laden talked them out of it. Vast parts of the Muslim and Arabic worlds dislike him.
They, like the Iraqi Sunni, will dislike him even more as they begin to see his vision of Islamic Armageddon up close and personal. It’s one thing for the “Arab Street” to hail a Dark Messiah when he rails against the hegemony of a distant and mistrusted superpower. It’s quite another thing to support him when he’s blowing up your friends and neighbors.
A cleverer man than Bush would have exploited this universal antipathy to death and destruction. Instead, he defined the war as a fight for "freedom"—a uniquely American crusade.
Iraqis don't necessaily want freedom, certainly not as defined by us. What they want now is the ability to walk out their front doors without being blown up or executed. By inflating a battle with a wily group of terrorists into a global apocalypse, Bush has left our troops bearing the burden of saving people who are quite capable of saving themselves, perhaps with some armament and air support.
So here’s the prescription for getting out of Iraq with all of our major, realizable objectives achieved:
- 1. Announce that our sole remaining objective in Iraq is to crush Al Qaeda there. Period.
- 2. Promise to leave as soon as we have credible evidence—in words and deeds—that all three ethnic factions in Iraq are working and will continue to work toward that goal, with our help if necessary. (The Shiites and Kurds are already doing so, and the Sunni are coming around.)
- 3. Promise to help the Sunni in (1) surviving, (2) achieving equitable distribution of oil revenue and power, and (3) battling Al Qaeda if they join that struggle on our side.
- 4. Leave the rest of it to the parties and their neighbors to sort out, with our diplomatic support and occasional help from our air power and garrisons in Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan.
- 5. Withdraw our troops to safe garrisons in Iraqi Kurdistan or outside Iraq as soon as we have assurance that Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run and will be pursued to extinction. (Doing so will not just protect our troops; it will also tamp down anti-American feeling and deprive Al Qaeda of much of its recruiting power.)
Our only enemy in Iraq is Al Qaeda. What better way to “win” than doing our best to crush it and leaving others' strong and capable forces to finish the job?
There are three reasons why crushing Al Qaeda should be our sole benchmark for leaving. First, the sole remaining persuasive rationale for staying at all is to keep Iraq from becoming a base for terrorists. Second, it was Al Qaeda's jihadis, not our troops, who struck the spark of ethnic mayhem. It would be poetic justice and good strategy to exterminate them like the vermin they are. Doing so would also devalue Al Qaeda's usual "victory" claims, whatever happens next in Iraq. Finally, now that all three of the main ethnic factions in Iraq see Al Qaeda as their enemy, too, crushing it is a goal we can reach while on the way out.
With the willing cooperation of Kurds, Shiites and now Sunnis, we should be able to accomplish the task within the next twelve months. Then our forces can redeploy to safer bases in the region, and most of them can come home.