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:

The insurgents celebrated their self-described victory and exploited the withdrawal for propaganda purposes. Baathist-led insurgents used the opportunity to establish training camps and weapons caches in the farmland and along the river banks while other groups, including Al Qaeda, smuggled in fighters, suicide bombers and money to support operations in Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad. Western Iraq became a temporary haven for criminals, terrorists and thousands of local thugs who made up de facto mini-regimes in the absence of a stabilizing force.

When the Seventh Marines returned to western Anbar it was essentially forced to retake some of the towns it once controlled. Many local Iraqis were openly hostile; the battle for the hearts and minds of the population was set back months, if not years. With the politicians murdered, local civil administration was almost nonexistent and any influence held by the central government was lost.

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.
--Spencer Ackerman
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.
Blogger jfaberuiuc | 9:30 AM

I would agree, jfaberuiuc. It's an awful sentiment that leaves an extremely bad taste in my mouth, but to the degree that we mean it when we say that al-Qaeda is the primary security threat of the moment, we should be prepared to embrace such a coldblooded scenario. If not, then not, but if so, it's got to be part of the equation. The Shiite forces can attrit al-Qaeda forces in the course of a civil war -- and who knows? Maybe the terms of some kind of sectarian settlement can include the selling out of a common Salafist enemy.
Blogger Spencer Ackerman | 9:41 AM

Nah, I'm going for the Nation & also doing a piece for the Prospect.
Blogger Spencer Ackerman | 11:02 AM

My feeling is that our presence is actually making things much worse for everybody involved anyway. Which makes sense -- putting dudes with guns in a country that hates them is probably one of the worst ways to reduce violence in that country.
Blogger Mike Meginnis | 8:15 PM

Bad arguments are usually damned by their metaphors. Connable's sense of what the American forces are doing finds expression in the idea of a control rod in a nuclear reactor. However, this is wrong for two reasons. The first, of course, is that Iraqis actually have a consciousness, instead of being parts of a machine. And there is no poll in the past year showing that the majority of Iraqis regard Americans as a control rod - rather, they regard Americans as the fuel of the insurgency. They support attacking Americans. They want, overwhelmingly, for Americans to set a time table of withdrawal.

The second and deeper problem is the way in which the metaphor obviates the question of American interest. If, indeed, Connable thinks Falluja is a model of American military management in Iraq, that is a great argument against the moral and political aspects of the occupation. The taking of Falluja was quite simply a war crime, in which a population was simply scattered from its residence, without any food, water or shelter prepared for it, while the city was basically destroyed. And far from being a model of security, there have been plenty of casualties in Falluja since - American troops are regularly attacked there. When the people of Falluja did get to vote in the election about the constitution, did they show their gratitude to the U.S. for "liberating" them from the "terrorists"? Somehow, they didn't - they voted overwhelmingly against the U.S. backed constitution.

Far from being a neutral control rod, the U.S. military is being used to violently repress this kind of political position in Iraq. In truth, it is none of America's business.

So, let's not pretend that armed troops are a control rod in a nuclear reactor. If anything, they operate as a sort of repressive force for Iraqi politicians clever enough to feed the Bush administration's vanity at any one time.
Blogger Roger Gathmann | 8:54 AM

What I was confused about (and we have a family connection to the author so I didn't blog this myself) was that to my tiny mind, the pullback of troops from the west to Baghdad is already, irreversibly, doing what Ben fears. So what he says, as you agree, is mostly right -- but that train is already out of the station, no?
Blogger heatherh | 1:00 PM