Either/Or: To Get Out of Iraq

As the war in Iraq grinds on, the need for an effective exit strategy becomes more and more apparent. American troops have found out just how dangerous a war run not by policy makers but by pollsters can be. Regardless of how well they polled, Bush’s empty declarations that “we will stay as long as we are needed, and not a day more,” or “as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” should not be confused with having a serious policy.

This complete lack of any coherent plan has led to an increase in calls for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. Such calls often evoke the memory of Vietnam, where an earlier American withdrawal could have saved countless lives and achieved the same result.

Supporters of the administration hit back, saying that premature withdrawal is the worst possible scenario. They warn that Iraq would slide further into chaos, leaving the country as a base of operations for terrorists and creating a civil war that could turn into a bloodbath.

It is tempting to point out that these issues should have been considered before the war was launched-but, at this point, what is needed is a solution.

What is really an issue here is not immediate withdrawal-it is not physically possible to remove 138,000 troops overnight-but whether a timetable for reductions should be set and whether a permanent long-term presence should be created.

Before the war started, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that, under the “you break it you buy it” principle, the United States would assume responsibility for mediating between the different ethnic groups that had been repressed under Saddam. Many argue that the United States has taken on the responsibility for securing peace in Iraq, and that an early withdrawal would endanger the fledgling Iraqi state.

Those who argue this have far too much faith in the ability of the United States to influence events in Iraq. While it is not known whether there will eventually be an all-out civil war, that decision is being made by a handful of Iraqi leaders, and there is very little we can do to influence their decision. The blood battles between and within the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds go back hundreds of years, so whether we maintain a troop presence for three years or eight years makes no difference whatsoever.

Iraq is now the land of private armies. While much has been said about the inability of the new central government to put together an effective fighting force, the world has barely noticed the plethora of ethnic armies who have refused to disband and who now hold the key to peace in Iraq.

The largest private army is the Kurdish PashMerga, an alliance of various militias numbering approximately 100,000 and equipped with tanks and artillery. The PashMerga flourished in the ’90s under the protection of the American no-fly zone and were used as a proxy force during the initial invasion. The Kurds, probably rightfully, see the PashMerga as a guarantee of Kurdish security and have refused to fold it into the larger Iraqi army. From a Kurdish perspective, it is easy to see why this is desirable, but, from a national perspective, it means that the central government will always be under the threat of Kurdish division.

A second large private army is the Badr corps. This Shiite army, numbering approximately 40,000, is heavily influenced by Iran, where its leaders spent time in exile. The Badr corps has been used to enforce Shiite religious law in southern cities, such as Basra, and has been accused of seeking retribution on Sunnis.

The Shiites also have many smaller groups, such as the Mahdi Army, led by the renegade cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army numbers several thousand fighters who clashed with U.S. forces in Najaf in the spring of 2004, and who just recently skirmished with the Badr corps over disagreements on the new constitution.

The new Iraqi government has agreed to permit these standing militias, which effectively means that Iraq will remain a ticking time bomb.

This is why the timing of a U.S. pullout is probably irrelevant to the long-term stability in Iraq. If the leaders of the Badr corps want to seek vengeance after years of Sunni oppression, they will do so. The only effect an American troop presence will have is to delay the inevitable.

There is no doubt that an American withdrawal at this time would fall far short of the shining victory we were promised in 2003. But a timetable for withdrawal may effectively be used as a way of pressuring the Iraqis to work together, and for finally freeing ourselves from the quagmire. Every day that we stumble on without a plan is another day that brings us no closer to peace, no closer to leaving, and only results in more Americans dead.



Stephen Webber is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences


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