The withdrawal of United States combat troops on August 31 falls during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer; a timetable better suited to the American political cycle than to conditions in Iraq. Ramadan usually sees a spike in violence as religious fervour combines with heat and hunger. But delaying the withdrawal another year would mean the Iraq war surpassing the Vietnam war in length. The timing could have been better for Iraq, but withdrawal is overdue for the US. Having never been justified in the first place – legally, strategically, or defensively – it is time to endmilitary engagement in Iraq.
The United States has dug its military into the landscape, requiring enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to maintain its presence. It justifies its Iraq addiction by claiming only its soldiers can prevent Iraqis from killing each other and the Iraqi government from falling apart. For their part, many Iraqi politicians rely extensively on the US military, even as they call for the end of the occupation to score political points against rivals. It is an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship and the withdrawal will be a withdrawal in all senses of the word, possibly incurring further damage in the process if not undertaken responsibly.
Iraq’s political landscape is in bad shape and likely to get worse, but there is nothing the US military can or should do to prevent this. Some argue that the combat presence should be extended, raising visions of renewed sectarian bloodshed, Arab-Kurd violence, and the lack of Iraqi security force competence as justification for renegotiating Washington’s security agreement with Baghdad.
There are very real risks of violence and destabilisation, but committing US troops ad infinitum would have almost no impact on the underlying causes, and escalating violence should not justify another Iraq fix. On the contrary, a continued US military presence would deter Iraqis from taking-on the issues themselves, the only long-term solution to Iraq’s problems, particularly in regards to security which is a domestic rather than international issue.
Once American combat troops leave, Shi’a followers ofMoqtada al-Sadr will be deprived of their favourite devil and will lose relevance unless they can turn their energies to solving the country’s electricity crisis and improving relations with its Arab neighbours.
With fewer US bases, Al Qaeda in Iraq will have a reduced number of targets and its presence there is likely to diminish. After all, it has very few natural allies even among the Sunni Arab population.
Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party won a tiny advantage in the March 7 vote, but Allawi has squandered whatever mandate he had by failing to form a coalition with any of the other major political parties. His frequent travels to Sunni Gulf countries further alienate him from the Shi’a population.
The National Alliance, intended to unite the rule of Law party with the Iraqi National Alliance in an undefeatable bloc, has likewise frittered away its mandate by botching the basic issue of who will lead the coalition.
Nuri al-Maliki, supposedly a strong leader, clutches onto the premiership even as the country crumbles around him because of a lack of leadership. Death threats against party leaders abound, and at least three elected officials have already been assassinated.
If a new government has formed by August 31, it may exclude at least one of the main demographic groups: Kurds, Sunni, or Shi’a. As in 2005, there is no appetite for a national unity government that would put all parties into the same tent and force them to compromise on de-Baathification and Kirkuk, issues that Iraqis are willing to kill and die for, rather than make concessions on.
If a national unity government is rammed into existence, the reluctant players will spend their four years in office squabbling rather than tackling the tough issues. The alternative of leaving-out one or more parties, may result in increased violence, but it may also lead to the development of a healthy opposition, able to credibly challenge the government when it acts illegitimately.
The US will not be going cold turkey in its withdrawal. With its remaining fifty thousand support troops and 1,300 civilians and diplomats, it would do well to focus on getting the country electrified and supporting constitutional reform, things Iraqis themselves see as major stumbling blocks for economic and political development.
Nothing would stabilise Iraq more than reliable electricity, which would allow business growth and employment of those who might otherwise join militias to support their families. Electricity would attract investment and make it possible for the oil and gas sectors to expand, increase refrigeration of vaccines and fresh food, benefit schools, and even have allowed more people to watch World Cup games; it is no coincidence that major protests prompting the Electricity Minister to resign occurred in June during the football tournament.
The delay in government formation both in 2005 and this year underscores the vital need to reform the constitution as well as the rest of the legal structure. The constitution’s ambiguous, vague wording, written in haste and barely ratified in 2005, resulted in both Iraqiyya and the National Coalition claiming in March to have won the right to form the next government. Without the laws, courts, and constitution for political and legal solutions, Iraqis will rationally choose violence as the most effective means to solve problems.
…AND WITHDRAW RESPONSIBLY
The US should, however, withdraw responsibly. Our departure will have consequences for many Iraqis. To ignore our responsibilities would, in the words of US Congressman Brad Sherman, ‘Allow a human rights catastrophe to occur in Iraq just because we are in the process of leaving.’ Representative Sherman was referring to the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), about three thousand radical Iranians held in Camp Ashraf in Iraq who oppose the Iranian government. Baghdad has no sympathy for the MEK because it assisted Saddam Hussein in suppressing Iraqi Shi’a and Kurds. The US withdrawal could result in a piranha-like feeding frenzy as both Iraq and Iran exact revenge.
MEK also participated in the 1979 take-over of the US Embassy in Tehran and so its members, as designated terrorists, are not eligible for resettlement in the US. Camp Ashraf, however, postpones the inevitable and risks becoming another Guantanamo Bay. MEK members who took part in acts of terror should face justice, possibly through an ad hoc United Nations tribunal that would ensure a fair trial. Those exonerated should then qualify for resettlement.
Even more desperate than the MEK are the estimated one hundred thousand Sahwa members, Sunni insurgents who initially fought against Americans in 2003-4 but then cooperated with them against Al Qaeda from 2005-8. Al Qaeda targets Sahwa members for betraying them, Shi’a militias despise them for working with the Americans, and the Shi’a government is reluctant to include the former insurgents in either the police or security forces.
Like MEK, Sahwa insurgents do not qualify for resettlement in the US. However, without Sahwa’s assistance, US forces would almost certainly have been defeated. Having signed a deal with Sawha we should uphold our end of the bargain by protecting remaining members from being picked off by Al Qaeda or Shi’a militias. We should help Sahwa families join the US refugee programme; restrictions on resettlement should not apply to innocent spouses and children. The credibility of America as a strategic partner in the Gulf depends in large part on how we treat our Arab allies, including Sahwa members.
As the military withdraws, thousands of Iraqis will lose their jobs as translators and assistants. Along with income loss they will face death threats for having worked with Americans and will no longer have the protection of nearby forces. Those who want to be resettled in the US should have quick and efficient access to the Refugee Assistance Program. For those who do not wish to leave Iraq, generous severance packages should benegotiated, taking into account their increased need for security as US troops depart.
On August 31, there may not yet be a new government to escort the US out, let alone take responsibility for the country’s security. People will undoubtedly still suffer from severe electricity shortages, with no air conditioning or refrigeration for most at the hottest time of the year. Clean water will be scarce and crops will be dying. There will be long, angry lines at fuel stations, rubbish mounting in the streets, and occasional explosions with accompanying screams and sirens. Basically, most people’s idea of hell. But separate we must.
Rachel Schneller, Foreign Service Officer, US State Department, currently International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Government or State Department.
Rachel Schneller, Chatham House,The World Today, Volume 66, Number 8/9