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Monday, December 18, 2006
On what frequency will liberation be?:
Marine Major Ben Connable asks an important question in his New York Times op-ed: shouldn't advocates of withdrawal from Iraq think through what the effect of withdrawal would be? Why, yes, we should -- in fact, we have an obligation to do so. So allow me to offer a brief response.
Connable argues that we have sufficient evidence from Falluja -- in between the aborted April 2004 siege and the November 2004 invasion -- to see what an Iraq free of U.S. forces would look like. I rather agree. His picture is this:
I concede every point in every particular. The trouble with Connable's scenario is that he draws no distinctions among what the insurgency is and what America's interests are. To disaggregate, the Sunni insurgency consists of Sunni ex-Baathists, Sunni Baathist-revanchists (that is, those fighting for a Baathist return to power), Sunni indigenous jihadis, Sunni non-Baathist anti-Americans, and Sunni non-Baathist anti-Shiite forces. To their ranks are added Sunni foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda. In practice, the distinctions are not always so hard and fast.
However, one distinction that's always held is the one between Iraqis and foreigners. And here Connable leaves out an important bit of the picture from Falluja during the relevant timeframe. The longer Fallujans got to know al-Qaeda, the more they hated them. What kept them united was the occupation and its collaborators.
So, then, what would happen if the U.S. left? Presumably, the foreigners and the Sunni Iraqis have a common interest in fighting the Shiites at this point. Lots and lots and lots of Iraqis will die. But at least in the near term, what we would see is the use of al-Qaeda in the Iraqi civil war, as opposed to the exfiltration of al-Qaeda forces to the U.S. or to Europe. (I would probably expect that if the civil war becomes a regional war, al-Qaeda would attack Shiite strongholds in, say, Iran, the Dharan province of Saudi Arabia and perhaps even Lebanon.)
And that leads to an important point: withdrawal from Iraq will most likely lead to the deaths of large numbers of Iraqis -- which is already happening in the civil war. This is not to be minimized or wished or explained away. But it is to be distinguished from deaths of Americans at the hands of al-Qaeda. Remember as well that al-Qaeda fighters are not the greatest: Ghaith Abdul Ahad documented both the disillusionment by Fallujans with the foreigners and their relatively poor military skills. In short, the Sunnis have reason to ally with al-Qaeda in a civil war or against an occupation; but when al-Qaeda starts to do something they don't like, the Sunnis will defeat them themselves -- unless they continue to face an external threat from Shiites or from Americans. In short, without us in Iraq, al-Qaeda holds a losing hand.
I'll be going to Iraq next month to investigate this myself. It may very well be that when I see conditions on the ground I'll need to adjust my analysis. But I would submit that the U.S.'s primary interest in Iraq is to prevent the growth of al-Qaeda's power -- and that the only way we can do that is by leaving. This won't lead to nice, lovely consequences: I once believed it was possible to save Iraqi democracy through withdrawal, but the civil war has obviated all that. What is possible is to prioritize what our interests are and to advance them: not a salvation of the Iraqi political process or the fledgling Iraqi military, but the deliverance of a setback to al-Qaeda. That happens if we go, not if we stay. If we follow Connable's advice, we weaken our military in the name of a futile mission that hurts, not helps, our interests. We have to say: No.
This is out of my depth here, but in addition to the advantages you mention, doesn't it also hurt al Qaeda in the long run if they focus their aggression on Shi'ites, rather than the west? With the US out of the picture and no longer the focus of day-to-day hositilities, do they really command the same respect as a force designed to oppress the locals while fighting Iranian influence in Iraq? It seems on the surface like a Hamas vs. Fatah analogue, where Hamas/al Qaeda are still a threat to Israel/the US, but much less so when they spend most of their time fighting the internal (Fatah/Shi'ites), rather than external enemy.