Herbert Bix: The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Herbert P. Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, writes on problems of war and empire. He is professor of history and sociology at Binghamton University.]

Tonight I would like to look at (a) the initial conditions of our entry into Afghanistan and Iraq, (b) the reasons why we have failed in both places, and (c) our obligations in the current US political situation. By the latter I mean that a majority of Americans are ready to do the right thing but our constitutional and party systems make it hard for us to be good actors on the world stage or to fulfill our obligations to peoples whom we harm.

Here, then, is a case for abandoning the current premises of US foreign policy and ending the misconceived “global war on terror.” It is also an argument for withdrawing our military forces from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Let it be noted at the outset that exiting these Muslim countries should entail permanently closing all US bases in Central Asia. It should mean dismantling the US system of global prisons from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, for their function is to facilitate the torture and abuse of helpless detainees. Most important, these moves should be accompanied by generous reparations to whatever governments eventually emerge in Afghanistan and Iraq. The payment of damages should be substantial, at a minimum in the tens of billions of dollars. In spite of that, such payments will be far less than the drain on the pocket books of American taxpayers that is the product of four years of Bush’s failed offensive-war policies, which have done nothing but harm to the Iraqis while decimating a significant number of American soldiers. Although the wars’ true dollar-cost is shrouded in secrecy, estimates range from $500 billion annually to over $1 trillion.


Briefly regarding Afghanistan, which US policy-makers considered a weak “failed state” and was indeed harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. Five years ago President Bush abolished Afghanistan’s sovereignty and on his own authority, without any UN Security Council mandate, sent in US troops. The bulk of US occupation forces entered the country after the Northern warlords—destroyers of Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996--had overthrown the Taliban government and the US had installed in its place the Hamid Karzai regime—certainly a real improvement on the Taliban, but nonetheless an entity created by foreign invaders. For a short time our nation-building effort there seemed to enjoy a stretch of moderate success. But it was conducted with extreme brutality, in a spirit of vengeance and arrogance that ultimately doomed it to failure. Today, the Karzai regime remains effectively limited to the area of Kabul, the capital, and a few provinces. Warlords once again rule most of Afghanistan. Opium cultivation, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes, is out of control. US war planes and NATO helicopters continue to bomb and kill innocent civilians while US Special Forces and NATO-led troops try to contain the resurgent Taliban who had once sheltered Osama bin Laden. In the process they create more “Taliban” supporters, setting the stage for renewed civil war.

The question then arises: Are Afghans better off today from our policies than they were when the Taliban ruled? The evidence is mixed. Overall, however, many have not seen a reduction in their suffering or an improvement in their lives. The US has not advanced democracy, furthered self-determination, or improved the lot of Afghan women. The Pentagon’s exercise of offensive military action in Afghanistan failed to achieve most of its professed goals, though it generated a massive amount of innocent civilian deaths and a high rate of war crimes committed by Americans. 1 We should now reflect on the immense harm we have done to Afghanistan and its people, end our military presence, and in a spirit of humility seek non-military solutions for Afghanistan’s problems. Generous US economic and technical aid over many years will of course be needed to fulfill our obligations. 2


Turn next to what may be the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century, produced by our war in Iraq. The initial conditions under which the US and Britain entered a peaceful, secular, unified Iraq were quite different from Afghanistan. Iraq was neither harboring terrorists nor in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Weak and defenseless after a decade of Anglo-American-imposed economic sanctions, Iraq posed no threat whatsoever to any of its neighbors. In order to justify an unprovoked aggression against Iraq the Bush administration conjured a pack of lies and distortions, and with enormous assistance from the US mainstream news media, deliberately misled the American people. The illegal Anglo-American invasion and occupation has fractured Iraq and left it, with the exception of Kurdistan, in a condition of full-scale sectarian and religious civil war. The toll on defenseless Iraqi civilians from US air power and rules of engagement continues to climb. What US occupation goal can possibly justify the post-invasion killing of from 400,000 to 900,000 Iraqi civilians, 70 percent of them military-age males?3

Thirteen percent of the estimated Iraqi casualties under the US-led occupation, i.e. between 50,000 and 100,000 people, have died from virtually unreported US air and missile strikes alone, though artillery bombardment must also have caused some of these deaths. 4 Many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive had Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice not invaded their country. When does “collateral damage” on this massive scale become genocide? What constitutes for America’s political leaders an acceptable number of Iraqi dead and wounded? What constitutes for the Pentagon the limits of civilian immunity in wartime? To raise these questions is also to ask: What does it mean to be an “American” in whose name such massive, mostly civilian casualties are being inflicted?

We know from the history of Twentieth century warfare and weapons development that the number of civilian deaths in war keeps climbing: During the Pacific War (1941-45), US conventional and nuclear bombs incinerated an estimated 600,000 to 900,000 Japanese noncombatants. In Korea (1950-53), American forces, bombing and killing noncombatants both north and south of the 38th Parallel, took the lives of an estimated 2 million Korean civilians. Korean on Korean killing also took an unspecified part of this number. In Indochina the US Air Force bombed and strafed cities and countryside in South and North Vietnam and waged chemical warfare in the form of Agent Orange defoliant against the land and its people. As a result, an estimated 4 million Vietnamese died. In the US war being waged against nationalist guerrillas in Iraq, civilian casualties have yet to approach the level of Vietnam, which was also an asymmetrical war. But the Iraq casualty figures could reach those proportions if the US prolongs its defeat by staying until 2010.

Nor can we overlook the 1.5 million Iraqis who are estimated to have lost or fled their homes. In 2006 alone the occupation generated 365,000 internally-displaced refugees.5 Tens of thousands of other Iraqis, “a third of Iraq’s professional class,” are now fleeing into exile in Jordan, Syria, Iran, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Europe. 6 Are we supposed to imagine that the American military presence, which precipitated both the resistance and the civil war, is protecting, let alone respecting Iraqi lives?

Moreover, every day the US stays in Iraq widens the support base for radical terrorists throughout the Middle East. The longer our troops remain the more it serves the interests of Al Qaeda, which “sees the continued American presence as a boon” and wants to prolong it so as to build ties with the Iraqis resistance, which is fighting the hated occupiers with ever increasing effectiveness. Conversely, total US military withdrawal narrows the terrorist base and removes Iraq as a terrorist training ground.

What should be done about this situation? Short of a decision to evacuate Iraq in accordance with a publicly announced, short time-table, whatever the Bush administration decides is going to matter less and less as time passes. For Iraq is without an effective functioning government. The Nouri al-Malaki regime’s days are growing shorter as rumors of a coup circulate in Baghdad and Washington. Whether the US exits or stays, all evidence points toward continued civil war until the situation runs its course and Iraqis form a functioning central government, free of American interference.

In these circumstances, the Bush administration has no justification for remaining in Iraq. Rapid withdrawal by land, sea, and air over a period of six-months or less is entirely feasible. It is the proper way to end a failed war policy. But correcting course and staying on until 2010, as the Army Chief of Staff says he is planning for, cannot possibly reverse the US’s political and moral defeat, and will only worsen matters militarily.

As Middle East historian Juan Cole points out, the US is the very axis of the two major factional conflicts that have split apart Iraq. American occupation forces, supported by a small minority of Sunnis, presently lead the futile struggle to take control of the three Sunni-dominated provinces (al-Anbar, Salahuddin, and Ninevah). American forces actively support the Kurdish efforts to control the oil city of Kirkuk; and Americans are fighting to control Baghdad and its environs. In the south of Iraq Shiite-on-Shiite conflicts unfold between the followers of Muktada al-Sadr and other Shiite militia groups (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Dawa, and Fadhila). These conflicts may or may not be connected with the Sunni Arab guerrilla struggles elsewhere in Iraq. But in all regions of Iraq except the Kurdish areas, survey data confirm that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis--80 to 90 percent--want an immediate and complete US pullout, and many of them think it is OK to kill Americans to achieve that goal.7 Who can blame them for thinking that the American and “coalition” presence is the problem rather the solution?


Over-60 percent of US citizens have come to share the Iraqi wish for withdrawal of all foreign military and civilian occupiers. The majority of voters support a speedy, total pullout in accordance with an announced timetable. They are ready to do the right thing. Of Democratic voters “53 percent want immediate withdrawal and . . . [only] 25 percent are for gradual withdrawal.” Voters who want a timetable for withdrawal number 52 percent versus “only 41 percent who oppose setting a timetable.”8 Many of these antiwar Americans see the crime that has been done and are aware that the U.S. cannot impose its will on the world without doing unacceptable violence to people who have never harmed us. They recognize that US troops are caught up in an Iraqi civil war, and don’t know who the enemy is or why they are even in Iraq, because Bush’s rationales for war change so frequently.

But what increasing numbers of Americans want, what rank-and-file Democrats, Independents, and Greens especially want, is not what their elected representatives are prepared to press for. Most Republican and Democratic candidates running for Congress are pro-war and offer no proposals of their own for getting out quickly. When voters express anti-war views it unsettles the political elites and raises their fear of democratic governance. A “mid-course” correction is OK, but actually leaving Iraq and Afghanistan will create a vacuum, they tell us; if anything, more troops should be deployed; for the US must “win” or be seen to have won. Pro-war Republicans and Democrats strongly disagreed with Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British Army, who recently called for a swift British withdrawal. Dannatt admitted that the presence of British troops in Iraq lacks the consent of the Iraqi people, stokes the Iraqi resistance, and worsens the security threat for British society. “As a foreigner,” he said, “you can be welcomed by being invited in a country, but we weren’t invited . . . . The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in.” 9

Four powerful groups constitute the ruling minority who are most opposed to evacuating Iraq completely in accordance with a short, publicly announced time-table. They are the non-accountable White House, the Pentagon brass, the national Republican Party, and those parts of the US business community who profit directly from Pentagon and Homeland Security contracts. Among the latter are the Halliburton corporation, firms like CACI and Tital that specialize in furnishing mercenary bodyguards and contract workers, and all the lobbyist organizations employed by these companies. 10 To this dynamic, deeply entrenched war faction one must add most of the neocon ideologues and the right-wing Zionist supporters of an expansionist Israel. The latter would like to have the US military stay in Iraq and to attack Iran and Syria, or, better still from their viewpoint, have Israel do it for them.

Because the White House, the Pentagon, and the Republican establishment know they are out of step with the sentiments of the American people, they are devising a consensus position or middle way on Iraq, which they imagine will allow them to salvage something from the fiasco they have created. The Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker, was set up to define a new course in US policy that would shore up the US’s diminished global power. Its forthcoming report will undoubtedly influence pubic discussion. Although recognizing the Bush administration’s omni-directional policy failures, these elites still press ahead, intent on retaining control of Middle East oil resources and achieving absolute strategic dominance, in every area, over all other nations. The latter remains the primary US security objective and neither Iraq’s collapse nor nuclear weapons proliferation is likely to alter it.


The sharp divisions in American opinion on Iraq and on Bush’s war on terror suggest that the US may have arrived politically at the point where it was in early 1968, following the TET offensive. Richard Nixon, campaigning for president, promised the American people that he would “end the war and win the peace in the Pacific.” 11 But he emphatically rejected the only rational option--immediate withdrawal from Vietnam—in favor of a “Vietnamization” policy that extended the war for seven more years. Today many Congressional Democrats and Democratic candidates for the House and Senate find themselves in a similar position. They refuse to meet the electorates’ rational demand for immediate withdrawal and do everything they can to paint this demand as extreme. But by fighting for an immediate end to the government’s wars and the abandonment of the false premises of its foreign policy, we join in a real struggle for democracy that will defeat them.

One of the unlearned lessons from Vietnam was that the American people inadvertently set the stage for this new cycle of executive branch abuse of power by failing to reform our political institutions and not holding accountable for war crimes our highest public officials. This time we must bring them to trial while building a movement that works to realize deep institutional reforms and full accountability.

1 Kevin Sack and Craig Pyes, “A Silence in the Afghan Mountains,” Los Angeles Times (Sept. 24, 2006).

2 See Kim Sengupta, “Troops Will Be in Afghanistan for Next 20 Years, Says Commander,” The Independent (UK) (Oct. 18, 2006).

3 Dahr Jamail, “Excess Death in Iraq,” Antiwar.com (Oct. 14, 2006). According to the second Lancet Report, published Oct. 11, 2006, “the actual number of dead Iraqis could in fact be higher. . . . Most of what we have heard reported, prior to this survey, had been deaths in Baghdad. . . . They are stories that have failed to take into account the rest of the country. . . . there are approximately 500 unexpected violent deaths ever single day throughout Iraq.” “The survey found that 87 percent of the deaths had occurred during the occupation rather than during the initial invasion, and that 31 percent of them were a consequence of attacks and air strikes by the coalition forces.”

4 John Quiggin, “Air War in Iraq,” Oct. 15, 2006, crookedtimber.org

5 Simon Jenkins, “America Has Finally Taken On The Grim Reality of Iraq,” The Guardian (UK) (Oct. 18, 2006).

6 Pam O’Toole, “Iraqis ‘Fleeing Rising Violence,” BBC News (Oct. 13, 2006), summarizing a UNHCR report.

7 Amit R. Paley, “Most Iraqis Favor Immediate U.S. Pullout, Polls Show,” Washington Post, (Sept. 27, 2006), A22.

8 John Walsh, “How Rahm Emmanuel Has Rigged a Pro-War Democratic Congress—Election 2006: The Fix Is Already In,” Counterpunch, Weekend Edition (Cot. 14-15, 2006. Available at counterpunch.org

9 Richard Norton-Taylor and Tania Branigan, “Army Chief: British Troops Must Pull Out of Iraq Soon,” The Guardian (UK) (Oct. 13, 2006).

10 Ali Eteraz, “The Forgotten Conspiracy: Corporate Torture in Iraq,” Counterpunch (Oct. 11, 2006). Available at counterpunch.org

11 Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Univ. of Kansas Press, 1998), p. 40.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

There are vast differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, the glossing over of which renders this article effectively dead on arrival. Not the least of these large and numeroius differences is that liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban was overwhelming supported by the rest of the world outside the US, and the deceit-layered Iraq cakewalk fiasco was not.

There are no magic solutions to the Cheney-Bush administration's half-assed effort in Afghanistan and the full-blown disaster it has inflicted upon America with its Iraq blunderama, but the multilateral approach is still superior to either unilateral Chickenhawk mayhem or unilateral pacifist withdrawal.

John Chapman - 10/29/2006

Now, years down the road after Bush did his “mission accomplished” flight-suit-shuffle on the deck of an aircraft carrier, US troops are still trying to secure Baghdad in the middle of a growing civil conflict between Sunni and Shiite. Now, the “stay the course” rhetoric is suddenly denied by Bush, or his advisors. They seemed to have recognized the futility of this strategy and now claim the stay-the-course rhetoric never really existed. Now comes the talk of timetables for troop withdrawal. It’s election time all right, a time to ramp up the lies, start on those character assassinations and increase the Democratic body count.

Mr Bix makes a decent case here for withdrawal but I feel it’s too late to leave without losing the kind of face America thinks it would lose. I attribute this partly to new political developments and to the American foreign policy that grew out of the 1920’s and gained full force up to 1950; the concept of total war and absolute victory. The American mind still seems to cling to this.

Although troop withdrawal would make America look weak and really bad, not withdrawing will make them look really really bad and then create the greater catastrophe, and make them look like the Keystone cops in the bargain. Reliance on their muscular way of interacting in world affairs hasn’t deterred new developments in the Mid East in the last several years; new terrorism growth, suicide bombers - the new tool for Islam, and the inevitability of all states in the Middle East someday wanting nuclear weapons. Using the concept of total war and absolute victory will not work in this scenario. You can’t bomb terrorist movements, you can’t kill suicide bombers who already consider themselves dead and the fellow Muslims they kill, who are considered to be in God’s grace because of their innocence, and you just can’t reshape the vacuum created after pulling down an Iraqi regime – the manner in which a vacuum is filled cannot be controlled by an Administration who, viewing the Middle East through Christian eyes, see that it has oil , is currently a strategic place, and believes it is creating an hegemony by installing democracy when it is really playing into the hands of cleverer leaders from Iran, Pakistan and a number of other Middle Eastern states.

The US is going to have to live with the mess they created in Iraq and the fact that when they got rid of Saddam they opened the door for Iran (an upcoming nuclear state), the buffer was gone. Now Palestine, Hammas, Israel, Iraq, Iran and the rest of the Middle East states have to be seen as one problem; a view Rice doesn’t seem to have.

If Iran has truly nationalistic aspirations, the world has nothing to worry over and Iraq can be let go. Nationalistic states don’t launch nuclear missiles if they intend to aspire to their ideals; a population has to live for that. Any state knows they would face a devastating retaliation. But if Iran uses nationalism as a cover for some sort of pan-Islamic creation for darker deeds then there may be a problem. I would like to believe that humans are not that insane as to use religion as the reason for their extinction.

Vernon Clayson - 10/24/2006

"Remarkably silly statement from a scholar of Bix's caliber" hits the mark as a comment, one wonders why a "scholar" becomes so heated in negativity that he loses his expected impartiality. Partiality is for the politician, it's their meat, and lesser for the laity who grasp at straws offered by the media, who also should be impartial but lean way to the left, therefore failing miserably to be neutral. Will the next chapter by Bix strike a balance to give readers the impression he does see two sides to a debate?

mark safranski - 10/23/2006

Never the twain shall meet, it would seem.

"Five years ago President Bush abolished Afghanistan’s sovereignty and on his own authority, without any UN Security Council mandate, sent in US troops"

Why would the U.S. need a UNSC mandate after having been attacked by an organization that was thorouhly integrated into the (almost universally unrecognized) government of Afghanistan ? I suggest Mr. Bix read the self-defense clause in the UN charter.

Moreover, President Bush had proper constitutional authorization to use military force from the U.S. Congress. He did ot act on his own authority.

Remarkably silly statement from a scholar of Bix's caliber.

Patrick Murray - 10/23/2006

The comments of Herbert Bix demonstrate why the United States of America should not be a great power. I think that we should leave Iraq. But Afghanistan? We should have done Afghanistan with 150,000 troops and caught Bin Laden while we were at it. The Bush legacy will weaken this country's resolve for another 40 years while we ring our hands over an idiot.