Juan Cole: No, We Can't Immediately Withdraw from Iraq





Michael Schwartz argues that the US military cannot play any positive role in preventing an all-out Iraqi civil war and should therefore get out of Iraq.

I just cannot understand this sort of argument. Iraq is not now having a conventional civil war, in which you'd have militias fielding 2,000 or 3,000 men against one another and vying over territory. If such a civil war broke out, of course the US military could stop it. A few AC-130s and helicopter gunships could scatter the infantry battalions.

I lived in Lebanon in the early years of the civil war. There, the Druze, Sunnis and Palestinians were fighting the Phalangists (largely Maronite Catholics, but 10 percent of their foot soldiers were Shiite mercenaries). It looked by early 1976 as though the Phalangists were about to lose. At that point, Syria came in and stopped the big battles and saved the Maronite Christians. The Syrians were afraid that a Palestinian-dominated Lebanon would be unpredictable and would pull them into unwanted direct conflicts with Israel. The Syrians used their tanks to stop the fighting.

When civil war broke out in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it left a million dead, displaced 5 million persons from the country, and left millions more displaced internally. Iraq is similar in population size and in ethnic and ideological complexity to Afghanistan. A full scale civil war could be equally devastating to Iraq. Moreover, if an Iraqi civil war pulled in Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers, it could destabilize the entire Middle East and could lead to $20 a gallon gasoline.

So I simply disagree with Schwartz's main points:

'1. The U.S. military is already killing more civilian Iraqis than would likely die in any threatened civil war;

2. The U.S. presence is actually aggravating terrorist (Iraqi-on-Iraqi) violence, not suppressing it;

3. Much of the current terrorist violence would be likely to subside if the U.S. left;

4. The longer the U.S. stays, the more likely that scenarios involving an authentic civil war will prove accurate. '


The US military is killing a lot of Iraqis, but whether it is killing more than would die in a civil war would depend on how many died in a civil war. A million or two could die in a civil war, and that's if the war stays limited to Iraq, which is unlikely. The US presence is not aggravating Iraqi on Iraqi violence in itself, rather it is the new political situation in which Sunni Arabs are the low man on the totem pole, a situation that will not change. That sort of violence would increase exponentially without a US military presence. The terrorist violence might or might not subside if the US were to leave, but the conventional violence could well escalate enormously. Again, it is not the US presence that increases the likelihood of civil war but rather the inability of Shiites and Sunnis to compromise in the new situation. A US withdrawal would not cause the Sunnis suddenly to want to give up their major demands; indeed, they might well be emboldened to hit the Shiites harder.

What could be done? I think the British may as well leave the south, because the local Shiite militias, however problematic, are preventing large-scale guerrilla violence and don't need the British. The Basra police don't even want the British there, after the British were preceived to have violated Iraqi sovereignty by freeing two captured British intelligence operatives.

If the British leave, the militias will be strengthened. But it is going to happen one day, anyway, so it might as well be now. The nine southern, largely Shiite provinces are not a likely site of a civil war, so why garrison them with foreigners? The US troops have now left Najaf, and the British should leave Basra.

But what if Ramadi and Samarra mount a large militia that marches on Baghdad? What if it hooks up with Sunni Arab fighters in West Baghdad? What if it tries to kill the leaders of the elected government or Grand Ayatollah Sistani?

Can anyone guarantee me that this scenario won't occur? Or that it won't lead to an enormous bloodbath, with a million dead, if it does? I have seen how these situations go out of control, with my own eyes.

I'd get most of the US ground troops out, and just cede Tal Afar to whoever is in Tal Afar. But I think the US [or somebody, and unfortunately that means the US] has a duty to maintain a couple of air bases in the area along with some Special Ops forces to forestall a Himalayan tragedy in the near to medium term. Over time the US will be able (and will be forced) to leave altogether.

Of course, I'd be much happier if we could get US ground troops out on a short timetable and have the peace-enforcing done by the United Nations or even NATO. But that isn't going to happen, so the use of air power to stop a full-fledged civil war falls to the US.

So I can associate myself with a call for US ground troops out now. But frankly I think it would be selfish to just bust into Iraq (which 75 percent of Americans supported), turn it upside down, set it on a course toward civil war, and then abruptly pick up our marbles and go home altogether. We did that in Afghanistan after 1989, and it did not turn out well for us.

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Mike Schoenberg - 9/24/2005

Seems like there are a few othjer factors to consider. One is the huge debt we are creating every day we are in Iraq. Two is the amount of damage to this country from Katrina and Rita and where this additional funds are going to come from. Sems like the only one of Iraq's neighbors that is a threat to us is Iran. With them and the neo-conservatives in Washington, In can't think of a more antagistic pair.


mark safranski - 9/24/2005

"negotiating the American departure in collaboration with Iraq's neighbors"

I'm not getting the logic here Dr. Fraser.

Assuming for a moment that bugging out is a good idea - and there are many reasons why it isn't - what exactly would we be negotiating for ? What are you looking for these states to do as the U.S. pulls out ?


Cary Fraser - 9/24/2005

The issue of an immediate withdrawl needs to be discussed in terms of negotiating the American departure in collaboration with Iraq's neighbors. The illusion that the US can prevent a civil war in Iraq is an absurd proposition - it can mount campaigns of violence against insurgents but it cannot prevent the disintegration of the Iraqi polity - it has done more than enough damage to ensure that it will be difficult to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.

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