By Helena Cobban*Just World News
July 15, 2005
Over the past few weeks I've been working on sketching out what an effective US exit strategy from Iraq would look like. One earlier version of this can be found here.
This strategy would focus on effecting a rapid and total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in the smoothest possible way. It is not, perhaps, one that most US policymakers are yet ready for. But as time progresses and domestic support for the war venture continues to erode, a "speedy and total" exit plan like this will most likely come to be seen as the best-- or perhaps, the "least bad"-- of Washington's remaining options.
It already looks considerably more effective and do-able as an exit strategy than the "ramp up the troop levels" approach advocated by most leading Congressional Democrats and commentators like Tom Friedman or Kenneth Pollack.
The parallels with Israel's position in Lebanon in the late 1990s are by no means perfect, but they continue to multiply. Back then, many Israelis warned of chaos and bloodshed in Lebanon, and of vastly increased Syrian influence in Lebanon and the region, should the IDF undertake a unilateral withdrawal. The much-ballyhooed eruption of chaos never eventuated there (though there would quite likely be some continuing internal conflict inside a post-withdrawal Iraq). As for enlarged Syrian influence in Lebanon... It didn't last very long, did it? Meanwhile, after the May 2000 withdrawal Israel was able to regroup and retrain IDF units that had been tied down far too long in the (in-)security zone inside Lebanon.
I am not arguing that the US withdrawal from Iraq should be, as Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon was, quite unilateral. As with Israel's currently planned withdrawal from Gaza, negotiating the modalities of the withdrawal with a successor power would undoubtedly make for smoother overall performance of this complex logistical challenge. Ideally, the US withdrawal from Iraq would be negotiated. Those negotiations need not be long-drawn-outâ€”and the actual implementation of the withdrawal should not be held hostage to their success, or even their formal convening. If Washington were to announce that "We have now decided that our mission in Iraq has been successful and we will therefore bring it to a complete end. We will start the complete redeployment of our troops out of the country on Date D and complete it on Date D-plus-(say) 90. And we invite the Jaafari government and all other interested parties to assure the safe passage out of Iraq of these troops," then I am sure many Iraqis would be eager to respond positively to that, at both the official and local levels.
... So let's see where the discussions on an "exit strategy" are six months from now, shall we? In the meantime, let no-one say that no workable plan for a complete withdrawal has yet been put forth by anyone.
How to exit from Iraq
(1) Head south
The best way out of the country would undoubtedly be southwards, returning along the Kuwait/Basra rout by which the vast majority of the US troops entered the country. This is the best route from the logistical, cost, speed, and also political viewpoints. It seems a happy coincidence that one of the least badly-run parts of the country is the British zone in the south. (I note, however, that the "redeployment inside Iraq" that is reportedly now under discussion in the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence seems to concentrate US forces in the middle of the country rather than the southâ€”and there also seems to be the possibility they British might give up Basra? This would greatly complicate any subsequent planning for a total withdrawal from the country.)
(2) Auxiliary exit routes
Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might all also be willing to allow transit rights to the redeploying troops. I somehow suspect Syria and Iran would not be so happy to do so. However, no doubt the Iranians would be happy to negotiate some kind of an arrangement whereby-- in return for some quid pro quo-- they might undertake not to harass US troops leaving Iraq along routes close to Iran or its vital sea-lanes, so long as the redploying troops stick to agreed corridors and a known timetable of redeployment.
(3) One potential can of worms
Some folks in the Pentagon and elsewhere might still be tempted to leave a successor force in Iraqi Kurdistan. This seems like a real can of worms. They could easily become just as bogged down there as is the UN presence in Kosovo, six years after the US-led war to "rescue" Kosovo's ever-fractious people. (The international-law status of both areas could become very similar-- that is, Kurdistan's could become just as murky and basically unsustainable as Kosovo's if the US succeeds in breaking it off-- but only partially-- from the rest of Iraq.)
(4) How can US troops redeploying out of Iraq be assured they won't be harassed/attacked along the way?
This is a concern with some validity. The US authorities could negotiate an agreement on this matter with the Jaafari government. Of course, at present, the Jaafari government is not a body viewed as representative by many Iraqis, especially the more nationalistic ones. But if he could say to his compatriots: "Look, here is the plan for the total withdrawal of US troops so let's all calm things down," then he actually might suddenly develop nationwide credibility. And even if he didn't gain that, simply the fact that the US troops are visibly following a well-publicized and timely withdrawal schedule would certainly mean that many other Iraqi leaders at the local level would come forward and say, "Yes, let's make sure this goes smoothly."
(5) Iraq after the withdrawal
What happens inside Iraq after a total US pullback? Firstly, this is really no concern of the US authorities. Secondly, the kind of scaremongering scenarios voiced by many in the US political elite-- about a "bloodbath" or "civil war" or whatever-- have little credibility. Most of the people mongering these fears are people who have zero knowledge of Iraqi society. But these warnings do constitute the same kind of propaganda as was disseminated widely in Israel in the years leading up to that country's historic May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon... And on that occasion, not one of the scaremongery scenarios of bloodbaths, retribution, etc., ended up happening. Also, did I mention that whatever happens in post-withdrawal Iraq, it's none of Washington's business?
Given the need to muster the necessary sealift, airlift, and other logistics, I think that 4-5 months from the date that Washington makes the total-withdrawal decision to the time the last British squadron follows the last US troops out of the door would be about right. And contrary to what some folks say I believe that, once a total-withdrawal decision is made, announcing it as soon as possible will help ensure more calm for the period of the withdrawal, rather than less. Let's face it, the Iraqis and most of their neighbors will be delighted by the decision!
(7) Making amends
The Iraqis would be even more delighted if the US were also to announce a fair-minded policy of reparations to their country, and to offer to work cooperatively with any representative government that emerges there.
(8) What role for the UN?
Juan Cole has recently expressed himself in favor of the US force somehow being transformed into a UN force as part of the withdrawal scenario. I used to argue this way myself, until about a year ago. Now, for a number of reasons, it looks to me like a dead duck of an idea. The UN has inexorably lost legitimacy on the Iraq issue, the more it has gotten dragged along in the slipstream of the Bush administration. For it to collaborate now in giving yet more cover to what would likely be continuing US designs on Iraq would be a sure path for the organization's continued decline. (See Kosovo, above. Then imagine that multiplied by 100.) Also, I don't see the other Permanent Members of the UNSC-- apart from Tony Blair, of course-- as nowadays being ready to throw in their lot with what could still look a lot like continuing US imperial ambitions in Iraq.
What the P-"3" and other nations might well be prepared to see the UN do is more modest:- to organize the kind of regional consultations that will be necessary if the US withdrawal is to succeed (especially important with Iran); to help coordinate a truly good-faith international rehabilitation effort in and for Iraq (as opposed to one that is forced, as at present, to work within the constraints of Washington's imperial designs); to help sponsor meaningful progress on regional security issues, quite broadly...
(9) A last word
The last American (or Brit) to leave, please don't forget to tell the Iraqis that they are now free to switch on their own lights. As I recall, they did a pretty good job of that, all on their own, after the hammering their infrastructure took from US airpower in 1991.