Recently, when the United States military trimmed some of its forces in Baghdad, sectarian violence there increased. In response, the Pentagon not only moved troops back in, but increased American presence in the embattled Iraqi capital. Sectarian violence then decreased correspondingly. What does this tell us about our eventual pullout from Iraq? Simply put, the civil war will get worse. The country could very well explode, yet again redefining what we regard as the “worst-case scenario.”
The above circumstances are hardly a bellwether for what will befall Iraq in the near future, but it becomes important when one remembers that since the violence began in earnest in the summer of 2003, our primary mission in Iraq has been to prevent the country from descending into civil war. As much as we have been unsuccessful in that mission, there is every possibility that when we leave, the situation on the ground in Iraq could worsen.
And there’s the rub. The United States made a colossal strategic blunder when it invaded Iraq. Our involvement in Iraq has become the defining foreign policy event of the 21st century for our nation. The war clouds our dealings with every other nation on the planet, it is draining our treasury, and it has left a gaping hole in our military’s capability that has raised questions about our ability to deal with our real enemy from the Middle East, radical Islam. It is not a far-fetched concept to think we may be dealing with the repercussions of the invasion for the remainder of the century. Instinct dictates that the best way to correct this mistake would be disengagement. We need to arrive at a place where we can refocus our military, governmental, and human resources on charting a course through what is becoming a very challenging era. But what happens if in correcting past mistakes, we leave a failed state in our wake?
There’s no easy answer for this. Whether or not we could have fought an effective counter-insurgency after the initial ground war, and thus prevented the mess we are in now is a moot point, as is whether or not we can turn things around. The national effort needed to properly begin securing Iraq is beyond us now. It begins with 500,000 ground troops and ends at least a decade from today. The cost is simply too high. But prolonging our current subpar efforts is equally ridiculous. So our collective consciences will weigh heavily when we depart, and we watch from a safe distance as the bloodbath consumes Iraq. Who honestly knows what will come out the other end?
If securing Iraq is truly fantasy, then we need to begin preparing for the consequences of an Iraq torn asunder. For while it would be nice to pretend that withdrawal will cure all ills and erase all transgressions, this will not be the case.
First of all, the civil war must be contained to Iraq. There is a very real danger that the sectarian violence could spread to other nations in the region. The destabilizing effect this would have on governments that rule over restive minority sects, or in some cases, majority sects, could lead to Baghdad-like chaos in every major city of the Middle East. A conflict this widespread is unlikely, but the fact that it is a possibility at all is an indication of how close the pot is to boiling over in the region. Iraq’s neighbors are not going to sit on their hands while Iraq burns. All her neighbors will be actively engaged in preventing the violence from erupting in their own countries. Some, like Turkey or Iran, may be inclined to mount small interventions into Iraq to protect their interests. This could, of course, only make the situation worse, so expect much diplomatic effort to be exerted to keep the civil war within Iraq’s borders, and other nation’s troops off her soil.
Next, look eastward towards Kabul. It could be argued that the current relapse into warlordism and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan are a direct result of American focus being shifted to Iraq. Upon withdrawal, it is essential for America to refocus some of that effort on Afghanistan, if we have not already done so, in order to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terrorists yet again.
There is another lesson from Afghanistan. Upon the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, the country embarked on a bloody civil war. This was damaging for Afghanistan itself, but what became a concern for the rest of the world were the large numbers of skilled fighters and terrorists that had been created by the meat grinder of the Hindu Kush. Some of these men have become the embodiment of international terrorism, and we need to be aware that when Iraq finally does become somewhat stable, there will be a fair number of men who’s great trade in life is spreading fundamentalism and death. We need to be vigilant. There is no excuse for yet another generation of extremists slipping underneath the radar to take us by surprise like Al Qaeda.
It is also of supreme importance to remember that withdrawal does not mean abandonment. If preventing American deaths were the purpose of withdrawal, that would be fine, but it is not. While we will no longer be fighting a war in Iraq, the country will still require a large amount of our diplomatic effort (both in Iraq and among nations that would be willing to help), military advisers, and foreign aid. In other words, everything we can do short of fighting in Iraq will still be required of us after our troops leave.
What is unfortunate is that no matter how we handle withdrawal, Iraq will more than likely become a cauldron of death. The Iraqis will shoulder the responsibility of creating their own future free of violence, but as the violence spikes upon our exit, our culpability will inevitably foster doubt. We cannot afford to let the what ifs dictate our foreign policy, however. There is not much that is desirable in leaving Iraq, but when taken in consideration with what happens were we to remain, that is, more of the same for a decade or more, the choice becomes clear. Instead of carrying on in Iraq, we need to be cold and consider the damage we do to ourselves by continuing to sacrifice so much of our national capability in a place beyond our control.