Thursday, February 15, 2007

We Can't Win in Iraq

Those who say we should maintain our presence in Iraq cite to a number of reasons as to why we should stay. In this opinion piece from last Sunday's Washington Post, retired Army general William Odom effectively refutes all of them:

1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess -- the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a "failed state," or some other horror. But this "aftermath" is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.

2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran's influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president's initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power -- groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991. Why are so many members of Congress swallowing the claim that prolonging the war is now supposed to prevent precisely what starting the war inexorably and predictably caused? Fear that Congress will confront this contradiction helps explain the administration and neocon drumbeat we now hear for expanding the war to Iran. Here we see shades of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in Vietnam: widen the war into Cambodia and Laos. Only this time, the adverse consequences would be far greater. Iran's ability to hurt U.S. forces in Iraq are not trivial. And the anti-American backlash in the region would be larger, and have more lasting consequences.

3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it was the U.S. invasion that opened Iraq's doors to al-Qaeda. The longer U.S. forces have remained there, the stronger al-Qaeda has become. Yet its strength within the Kurdish and Shiite areas is trivial. After a U.S. withdrawal, it will probably play a continuing role in helping the Sunni groups against the Shiites and the Kurds. Whether such foreign elements could remain or thrive in Iraq after the resolution of civil war is open to question. Meanwhile, continuing the war will not push al-Qaeda outside Iraq. On the contrary, the American presence is the glue that holds al-Qaeda there now.

4) We must continue to fight in order to "support the troops." This argument effectively paralyzes almost all members of Congress. Lawmakers proclaim in grave tones a litany of problems in Iraq sufficient to justify a rapid pullout. Then they reject that logical conclusion, insisting we cannot do so because we must support the troops. Has anybody asked the troops?

These are essentially the four main arguments trotted out time and time again by those who believe we should stay in Iraq. But as Odom makes clear, each argument makes assumptions about the state of events in Iraq that simply are untrue and unsupportable. It's easy for those on both sides of the withdrawal debate to get lost in the details of what's going on over there. But that civil war already exists in Iraq, that success in Iraq means increasing Iran's influence in the country, etc., are not "details." It is simply impossible to argue around them, which is why proponents of the war simply fail to mention them at all. That many of these same proponents seem not to even understand them, tells you something about the state of punditry and discourse in this country.

Edward Luttwak recently wrote an op-ed for the NY Times also stating clearly some basic facts about Iraq that we need to understand before there can be any serious debate about what to do next. He's also authored a piece for Harper's magazine in which he states that our efforts at counter-insurgency in Iraq are essentially a charade, because we will never do what it takes to defeat the insurgency in Iraq. The piece is not available online, but essentially Luttwak is arguing that our unwillingness to actually govern an occupied country (as we did in Germany and Japan, and as opposed to prepping Ahmed Chalabi to run the country) and our "principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents" means we were from the start doomed to defeat against the insurgents. Note that Luttwak does not really argue that we should do either in his piece, whatever he may actually believe. Rather he's stating that we were unprepared to do what it would take to hold Iraq together, and were always unprepared for it.

There is some debate on whether Iraq was doomed to civil war from day one of the invasion. I don't believe that anyone can really know that, and that argument is being tossed around by those who want to blame the Iraqis for our failures and those who want us to get out of Iraq, neither of whom are making appeals to historians and anthropologists to answer this question for us. I for one believe Iraq was not doomed from the start, and that if we had invaded and occupied the country with half a million soldiers are more and governed the country as we did Germany and Japan, there might have been considerably more cause for hope. Of course, if we had known that it would require such an effort, we would have never gone to war, which is why statements to that effect were ridiculed by the Iraq hawks. But blinding our eyes to what it would take to "win" in Iraq is what has ultimately produced horrible civil war and will result in defeat and humiliation for us. It is bitter irony to know that if we had admitted to ourselves what it would take to win in Iraq, we never would have invaded in the first place, fear of WMD's notwithstanding.

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