Why We Must Leave Iraq
By Larry C. Johnson
Thursday 25 August 2005
Sometimes in life there are no good options. It is part of our nature to always assume that we can fix a problem. But in life there are many problems or situations where there is no pleasant solution. If you were at the Windows on the World Restaurant in the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 9 am on September 11, 2001 you had no good options. You could choose to jump or to burn to death. Some choice.
A hard, clear-eyed look at the current situation in Iraq reveals that we are confronted with equally bad choices. If we stay we are facilitating the creation of an Islamic state that will be a client of Iran . If we pull out we are likely to leave the various ethnic groups of Iraq to escalate the civil war already underway. In my judgment we have no alternative but to pull our forces out of Iraq . Like it or not, such a move will be viewed as a defeat of the United States and will create some very serious foreign policy and security problems for us for years to come. However, we are unwilling to make the sacrifices required to achieve something approximating victory. And, what would victory look like? At a minimum we should expect a secular society where the average Iraqi can move around the country without fear of being killed or kidnapped. That is not the case nor is it on the horizon.
We may even be past the point of no return where we could impose changes that would put Iraq back on course to be a secular, democratic nation without sparking a major Shiite counteroffensive. Therefore the time has come to minimize further unnecessary loss of life by our troops and re-craft a new foreign and security policy for the Middle East .
The Current Situation
Iraq has devolved into a tripartite state, split among the Kurds in the North, the Shias in the South, and Sunni tribes in the middle. While things are relatively peaceful in the North and South, the central part of Iraq is in the grips of a defacto civil war. Most of the trained and deployed Iraqi police and military forces are Shia. Most of their operations are directed against Sunni targets. The Sunnis do not feel that they have a legitimate voice in the political process. As a result they have decided to fight.
The Shia majority, long oppressed in Iraq , are not willing, nor likely, to relinquish their new status as the tops dogs. They are receiving significant intelligence, economic, and political support from the Islamist government in Iran . The Shia also are well positioned to control a significant portion of Iraq 's vast oil resources. They are not likely to share this wealth with the Sunnis.
There is no effective national government in Iraq . The current group meeting inside the Green Zone to draft the constitution has no real clout. True power is held by tribal chieftains and religious leaders scattered around country. Those leaders are playing both sides of the fence - keeping a toe in the political negotiations in Baghdad while providing money and protection to insurgents.
The insurgency in Iraq is comprised of at least 20 groups. Some of these are Baathists, some are Sunni Islamic extremists, and a few are Shia. They agree on one thing - the United States is an invader and must be expelled. While there is no single leader who can claim the status or mandate as did Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam days, the insurgents in Iraq are as firm and serious as those we faced in Vietnam .
The continued presence of US combat forces and our operations against Iraqi civilians is recruiting new jihadists from around the Muslim world. Notwithstanding US efforts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people, the sectarian strife and the images of US soldiers kicking in the doors of peoples' homes while searching for insurgents is creating more anger rather than support.
The Sunni insurgents have control of the battlefield in the central belt of Iraq . Even today the United States military cannot keep a six mile stretch of highway open that runs from downtown Baghdad to the International Airport . US diplomatic personnel and many key Iraqi Government officials live inside a security ghetto known euphemistically as the Green Zone. Even during the bleakest days of the war in South Vietnam , US diplomats and soldiers could travel freely around Saigon without fear of being killed in bomb blast or kidnapped. We don't have that luxury in Baghdad .
We could potentially defeat the Sunni insurgents if we were willing and able to deploy sufficient troops to control the key infiltration routes that run along the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys. But we are neither willing nor able. It would require at least 380,000 troops devoted exclusively to that mission. Part of that mission would entail killing anyone who moved into controlled areas, such as roadways. In adopting those kinds of rules of engagement we would certainly increase the risk of killing innocent civilians. But, we would impose effective control over those routes. That is a prerequisite to gaining control over the insurgency.
We cannot meet the increased manpower requirements in Iraq without a draft. We do not currently have enough troops in the Army and the Marine Corps to supply and sustain that size of force in the field. But, even with a draft, we would be at least 15 months away from having the new batch of trained soldiers ready to deploy. More importantly, there is no political support for a draft. In other words, we're unwilling to do what is required to even have a shot at winning.
While the insurgency is not likely to acquire sufficient strength to fight and defeat our forces directly in large set piece battles, they do have the wherewithal to destroy infrastructure and challenge our control of lines of communication. The ultimate test of a government's legitimacy is whether or not it can protect its citizens from threats foreign and domestic. Thus far the Iraqi Government has made scant progress on this front. Today's attack in central Baghdad , by a uniformed unit of masked insurgents, represents another disturbing milestone in the continued growth of the insurgency. One of these days we should not be surprised when an insurgent force breaches the Green Zone and takes some US diplomats hostage.
An ideal, but unlikely outcome, is that the secularists, who are trying desperately to craft a legitimate government, will persuade a sufficient number of Shia and Sunni leaders to turn their back on a religious-based government. Unfortunately, they don't control weapons or militia. Force remains the ultimate means for deciding a country's fate. In this case the guns are in the hands of those who favor an Islamic state over a secular nation.
If the United States tries to intervene now to compel power sharing on behalf of Sunni interests we are likely to trigger a backlash by the Shia majority. Mullahs like Moqtada al Sadr have demonstrated that they can mobilize combat units to kill Americans when their interests are challenged.
There are some indications that once we are out of the picture that the insurgency will turn on itself. As noted earlier a significant portion of the insurgents are not Islamic extremists. There is evidence that the different groups will fight each other. Sunni tribal chiefs are not likely to cede control of their territory to foreign Islamists once the United States is no longer on the scene. Our departure will likely lead to a brutal civil war, but such a war creates opportunities for the United States where it can rebuild its credibility with those forces who represent modernity and secular progress.
So What's Next?
Staying the course and enduring further casualties while the insurgency grows stronger is an insane policy. If we persist on that front we will end up strengthening the hand of Islamic extremists and their role within the Iraqi insurgency.
Our choice is simple - either we invest in the military resources and personnel required to defeat the Sunni insurgents and allow the Shia and Kurds to consolidate power or we withdraw and let the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds find their own solution. We cannot ask our soldiers and Marines to give their lives and sacrifice their bodies for a new Islamic state. It is true that our withdrawal will create a major vacuum and damage our prestige. But the alternative, i.e., that we stay and try to train up sufficient Iraqi forces and help the fledgling Islamic Government get on its feet, will leave us the favorite target of insurgents and terrorists. And after we have shed the blood of our sons and daughters in trying to create a new government that will be controlled by Islamists, those Islamists will ultimately insist that we leave Iraq and no longer meddle in their affairs.
Rosy scenario does not live in Iraq . Until we come to grips with this truth American soldiers will continue to be killed and maimed for no good reason.
Larry C. Johnson is a former Deputy Director of the US State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism, who has spoken out for censure of Bush. Earlier, he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and is an expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security and crisis and risk management. Johnson is CEO and co-founder of BERG Associates, LLC, an international firm that helps multinational corporations and financial institutions identify strategic opportunities, manage risks, and counter threats posed by terrorism and money laundering. He is a Republican who supported and raised funds for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.