By Dr. Nayyer Ali

Any Exit from Iraq?

August 03, 2007

The American people have turned decisively against Bush’s war in Iraq. The administration has been reduced to pleading for more time (it has already had over four years) to make things go right. But nobody, except a hard core of Republican true believers, thinks victory for the US is achievable at an acceptable price. Bush no longer tries to drum up support for victory, instead he now tries to scare the public with the consequences of an American defeat.
He even tries to convince people that we are primarily fighting “Al-Qaeda” when in reality the main sources of violence are Baathists, nationalist Shias, and the general Sunni population that feels it has been cut out of its rightful place in Iraq. If we leave Iraq, it does not mean that Al-Qaeda will take over Baghdad, instead it will be Iraqi Shias, the exact opposite of Al-Qaeda.
It is not even clear what constitutes an acceptable outcome for the US. Is there still some forlorn hope that Iraq can be turned into a secular federal democracy that is America’s closest ally in the Muslim world? Or does acceptable now mean merely a central government that has enough military capacity to hold itself together and to prevent its own overthrow once US forces depart? Never mind its political or religious views, or even if it is nominally allied with the US.
Bush seems to suggest that even achieving such a minimum will require the long-term deployment of US forces, implying another 10 years in Mesopotamia. But that is not going to happen. Even if Bush stays put to the end of his term, the next President and Congress will begin departing from Iraq in early 2009.
If Bush were wise, he would recognize these facts and begin the withdrawal now under his own terms. That will give him a much better chance to define the long-term relationship between the US and Iraq.
If victory is no longer possible then what are the exit scenarios and their likely consequences? Scenario one is the rapid withdrawal of all US military forces leaving the Iraqis to sort out their own problems. This will likely result in another wave of Sunni-Shia ethnic cleansing, but will end with total Shia victory as they have numbers, the forces of the army, and the support of Iran to back them up. Sunnis will likely be completely driven from Baghdad and will be reduced to the three Western provinces of Iraq. The Kurds will likely secede, possibly sparking open conflict with Turkey. The Iraqi Shia state will become a theocracy strongly linked with, but not controlled by, Iran.
There will also be a struggle within the Shia and Sunni communities, often very violent, for supremacy. The victors will impose an autocratic and Islamist government on their respective people. This process will take two years to run its course, and will likely end with the partition of Iraq into oil-rich Kurdistan and Shia Iraq and an impoverished and embittered Sunni Iraq.
Scenario two is a complete withdrawal of US forces from the Shia and Sunni regions, but the construction and maintenance of permanent bases in the Kurdish regions. In this scenario the Shia-Sunni conflict will play out similarly to the first scenario, but the presence of US forces in Kurdistan will keep the Kurds from declaring full independence and they will continue to pretend to be part of an Iraq that does not really exist anymore (as they are currently doing). This will keep the Turks in check, but US forces in Kurdistan will actually have to rely on supply lines from Turkey as supplies coming up from Shia Iraq will be problematic, especially in the first few years before the civil wars end.
The third scenario is a major draw-down of US forces with the retention of a small but highly potent combat arm in Baghdad to protect the central government and maintain some order in the capital. Instead of 160,000 troops, perhaps 25,000 mostly combat troops will be left to act as a heavy strike force kept in reserve to back up the Iraqi government. Day-to-day military actions would be carried out by the (essentially Shia and Kurdish) Iraqi army, while the US forces would spend most of their time confined to large bases, only venturing out during emergencies. In this scenario Iraq remains a single country and the US continues to use its influence to slowly bring the three factions back into a real single state. This process may take 10-15 years, and the US forces will likely suffer a slow trickle of casualties. But it would be a far more tolerable burden on the federal budget and the soldiers who would be spared multiple tours of duty.
There is no feasible way the US can end this war in the near future in a satisfactory manner. And there is a clear time limit to how long the heavy commitment of manpower and dollars can be continued in the face of overwhelming public disapproval. This leaves the US with few good options. If Bush wants to shape the final outcome of his adventure he should start withdrawing on his own terms now. The surge has not, and will not, work. Comments can reach me at




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