Terrorists set off explosives among a civilian throng celebrating the Iraqi national football team’s semifinal victory in the Asia Cup, and dozens of civilians are killed. American warplanes bomb a suspected terrorist gathering, which turns out to be a wedding reception or any such innocuous event, and dozens of civilians are killed. What is different about these two circumstances, and scores like them over the past years?
First instincts lead someone to think that not much is different, but when intentions are considered, divorced from outcome, the differences become stark. When a terrorist or insurgent blows up a bomb, the aim is to intentionally kill civilians. Other than isolated criminal acts, all civilian deaths at the hands of the United States military are either mistakes or the result of the victims being in unfortunate proximity to military action. The United States does not target civilians. Unfortunately in war, sometimes you hit things you weren’t targeting, or things you were targeting are not what you thought they were, and civilians die. What’s even more unfortunate about this is that every civilian death at the hands of the United States military is one more wound that will not heal, one more germ that spreads dissatisfaction of the United States, or outright hatred among countless people, and serves to make our mission in Iraq that much more difficult. Every time Americans kill a civilian, circumstances regardless, it looks intentional.
When terrorists and insurgents target civilians in Iraq, they engender hatred as well, but their wider strategic aims are not affected. In killing civilians, these men show that the government in Baghdad does not have what is referred to as the monopoly on violence, a source of legitimacy that every government in the world must have. Every civilian death is a direct blow against the national government’s sovereignty. Every market and mosque bathed in blood is yet more evidence that those supposedly in charge, those that rose to power on the mandate of the people, are incapable of preventing violence, of providing for the safety of those people. Every attack on an oil pipeline, power station, sewage treatment plant, hospital or school, not enough to ever collapse the system, is just more evidence that the government in charge of those services is illegitimate.
In other words, the aims of insurgents and terrorists are furthered by killing and destruction, while our aims are hindered. But this reality doesn’t stop at Iraq’s borders. We are fighting a battle for hearts and minds in the cities and deserts of Iraq, but while the physical struggle is being fought there, the psychological struggle reaches throughout the entire Muslim world, and we are losing everywhere. American failures in Iraq, and the continuing violence, are a weighty albatross that serves no strategic purpose for the United States. Every day spent in Iraq further damages our national credibility and influence, and raises that of our enemies and their unconventional tactics.
Victory in Iraq being something the United States can no longer hope for, the best course of action is to begin withdrawal as soon as possible, to mitigate the damage being done every day in continuing to carry out a hopeless occupation. Whatever happens in Iraq after we leave, we are only delaying it by staying, and hurting ourselves in the process. It is unfortunate, but at this point, that hurt is becoming so extensive that the situation that will confront the Iraqis after withdrawal should be a secondary consideration to righting our ship of state. We can no longer ignore the problems created by continued involvement in Iraq because we can’t stomach withdrawal. Yes, the bloodshed in Iraq, current and foreseen, is directly on our collective conscience, but our leaders have a responsibility to see our welfare taken care of, not thrown away in the desert chasing a chimera.
After withdrawal, the lesson we need to take into the future is how much our enemies’ aims are served by the use of force, both ours and theirs. If we are ever to marginalize Islamic extremism, we need to put the misadventure of Iraq into our past as quickly as possible.