Time to Leave Iraq

Afghanistan has become the new battleground, with fighting and casualties on the upsurge.  As my colleague Malou Innocent has detailed, the outlook is not good.

Iraq has been largely forgotten along the way.  But far from being a grand success, it illustrates why even the good news isn’t that good, and certainly doesn’t justify a continued U.S. military presence.  Conservative columnist Diana West provides a surprisingly critical view:

This is not to say the U.S. military failed. On the contrary, the U.S. military succeeded, as ordered, to bring a measure of security and aid to a carnage-maddened Islamic society. Given U.S.-won security, surge architects promised us, this same Islamic society was supposed to then respond by coming together in ‘national reconciliation.’  They were wrong. Not only did Iraqis fail to coalesce as a pro-American, anti-jihad bulwark in the Islamic world (the thoroughly delusional original objective), they have also failed to form a minimally functional nation-state. And the United States is now poised to do the same thing all over again in Afghanistan.

I write this as the volume of talk of an Afghanistan ‘surge’ is getting louder, drowning out the quiet undercurrent of eye-opening reports now emerging on post-surge Iraq. Late last month, for example, the New York Times reported on a bluntly revealing memo written by Col. Timothy Reese, an adviser to the Iraqi military’s Baghdad command. In it, Reese urgently argues that the United States has ‘reached the point of diminishing returns’ in Iraq due, among many other things, to endemic corruption (“the stuff of legend”), laziness, weakness and culture of  ‘political violence and intimidation.’

Reese considers Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) ‘good enough’ – just – to keep the Iraqi government from toppling. That’s reason enough, he writes, to leave early, by August 2010 instead of December 2011. Reese describes a ‘fundamental change’ in the U.S.-Iraq relationship since the June 30 handover – a ‘sudden coolness,’ lack of cooperation, even a ‘forcible takeover’ by ISF of a checkpoint. While Iraq will still ‘squeeze the U.S. for all the “goodies’ that we can provide,” he writes, tensions are increasing and “the potential for Iraqi on U.S. violence is high now and will grow by the day.’

And that’s the good news. The Washington Times this week reported on an even more dire prognostication to be published by National Defense University written by Najim Abed Al-Jabouri, a former Iraqi police chief and mayor. Al-Jabouri focuses on problems within the ISF, where, he writes, the divided loyalties of what is essentially a series of militias beholden to competing “ethno-sectarian” political factions could easily drive Iraq to civil war. He writes: ‘The state security institutions have been built upon a foundation of shifting loyalties that will likely collapse when struck by the earthquake of ethnic and sectarian attacks. Iraq’s best hope for creating a long-term stable democracy will come from an independent national security force that is controlled by the state, and not by political parties competing to control the state.’

Al-Jabouri insists the United States should exert its ‘leverage’ to revamp the ISF, which, given Reese’s evidence of plummeting U.S. influence in Iraq, seems farfetched even if it were a good idea. Which it is emphatically not. An infidel nation cannot fight for the soul of an Islamic nation – a truism that, in a more rational (non-PC) world, might bring surge enthusiasts to their senses.

The original neoconservative plan for Iraq–as an advanced military post for Washington to use in imposing its will throughout the Middle East–always was a fantasy.  Whether Iraq can create a reasonably peaceful, stable, and democratic society remains very much up in the air.  But its success will depend on its own efforts.  It is time for the U.S. military to depart.