FREELY The illusion of phased
withdrawal By Mark Rothschild
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A consensus is
slowly building in the United States among both
congressional Republicans and Democrats that a
phased withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq will
begin next year.
Whether euphemized as
"redeployment" or described frankly as withdrawal,
the new strategy has moved into the mainstream. In
this new context, the positions still being
defended by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
beginning to look increasingly marginalized.
The various phased withdrawal plans
proposed by Congress and the Pentagon would permit
a steady withdrawal of US troops over time as
Iraqi government forces increase their fighting
According to this approach, a
strengthened Iraqi government force would suppress
and contain the Sunni insurgency as American
troops come home.
The pressure is rapidly
building for the White House to embrace phased
withdrawal as its own policy. Perhaps the Iraqi
parliamentary elections scheduled for December 15
will afford this opportunity.
implemented as conceived, a successful phased
withdrawal would leave behind a secure Iraq that
would not become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda,
nor permit a resurgence of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath
Withdrawing over time in phases
would prevent the insurgency from overwhelming the
Iraqi government as US troops draw down. After
enough time, Iraqi government forces could stand
on their own.
Iraqi government ground
forces are indeed becoming more robust, but in
order to suppress the jihadis and resurgent
Ba'athists after a phased withdrawal, the Iraqi
government will also need to possess a capable air
Air power has proven to be
essential in Iraq. US forces themselves are
dependant on massive modern air power and complex
ground and sea-based control systems - both to
protect US troops and to carry out offensive
military operations. For example, during the
November 2004 reconquest of Fallujah, US
carrier-based aircraft alone flew more than 21,000
hours of combat missions and dropped at least
54,000 pounds of bombs over that city.
Modern warfare as practiced in Iraq is
complex "net-centric warfare" in which complex
air-ground systems play an essential role. For
example, at Fallujah, 25 American warplanes at a
time were perilously stacked up over the nine
square mile city. American forces at Fallujah
depended on hundreds of precision-guided bombs
guided by satellite-based global positioning
systems. Battlefield commanders on the ground used
unmanned drones such as Predator to beam down real
time video pictures taken from over their enemy's
Some of these networked air-ground
systems comprise a part of a vast "reachback"
infrastructure that is controlled by operators
based at communications centers in the US and
integrated into the Global Information Grid (GIG).
To carry out future offensive operations
against strongholds such as Fallujah, a credible
Iraqi military force will require at least modern
combat aircraft, if not a sophisticated air-ground
However, there are
no plans to assist the Iraqi government in
establishing a fighting air force. The "Iraqi Air
Force", such as it is, consists of fewer than 40
aircraft - two Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, a
handful of Bell traffic helicopters, some Piper
Cub-like propeller-driven observation planes and
three troop transports. According to an assessment
by an American Air Force general, only six of the
Iraqi aircraft can actually fly.
complete phased withdrawal of all US forces would
leave the Iraqi government with its air force of
traffic helicopters at the mercy of, and playing
on a level playing field with, all the other
sectarian paramilitary militias vying for power in
The Iraqi Air Force is not
now a fighting air force. If the Bush
administration has any plans for such a force, it
is a very well kept secret.
It is hard not
to conclude that withdrawal would leave Iraq with
a ground-only military completely dependent on US
air power for its survival. Indeed, there are
signs that the Pentagon is prepared for this
New military communication
systems are now being deployed that point to a
permanent US presence in Iraq - after an
ostensible phased withdrawal.
semi-permanent communications systems deployed
prior to the battle for Fallujah are now being
augmented with a permanent enduring communications
infrastructure. This new permanent communication
infrastructure will provide commanders with secure
video, voice and data communications via
satellite, microwave and fiber throughout the
Iraq-Kuwait theater of operations.
system, which will crisscross Iraq and connect
more than 100 bases, is projected to cost $4
billion - although the Pentagon has been leaking
the story that just four stay-behind US bases will
remain in Iraq after withdrawal.
foregoing, it is hard not to conclude that phased
withdrawal is being utilized as a slogan under
which military operations will continue - and that
thousands of American combat troops may still be
in Iraq for many years to come.
Democratic members of Congress who think well of
themselves for now advocating phased withdrawal
are either deluding themselves, or they are
continuing to play the same double game many of
them began playing when they originally voted to
authorize the use of force - and then sniped at
the Bush administration over the subsequent
conduct of the war.
Phased withdrawal is
an empty slogan that can only result in prolonging
the war. It is knowingly advocated by those who
wish to prolong the war, and naively advocated by
some who earnestly oppose the war.
limited extent that a phased withdrawal does
result in a draw-down of the number of American
combat troops, the pernicious policy will place
those troops remaining in ever-greater danger and
thereby increase the number of dead and maimed
This is because under a
phased withdrawal, Iraq would become progressively
more dangerous for American troops, more lawless,
and then eventually fall under the sway of the
most ruthless and violent of the insurgent and
A strategy of phased
withdrawal, if actually implemented, might leave
Iraq in the hands of America's most avowed enemies
and become a secure base from which dangerous
terrorist forces could lash out at the US. An Iraq
after phased withdrawal could become in reality
the looming danger that Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist
Iraq was mistakenly held out to be before the war.
The road ahead From a
military-political point of view, the Iraq war is
unsustainable. It will not change the facts to
point out that the US could defeat the insurgency
over time. There is no more time.
American people will not abide Iraq for 10 more
years. In fact, the longer American forces are in
Iraq, the more impatient Americans have become. As
the months go by without visible progress, it
becomes more and more clear that time is not the
problem - nor the solution.
There is no
military problem on Earth that the US armed forces
cannot resolve, but Iraq is not a military problem
- it is a political problem, and the root
political problem of Iraq is the widespread
perception among Iraqis that its government is
that the Iraqi government is illegitimate does not
stem from the government's inability to establish
basic civilized living conditions for it citizens;
rather, its illegitimacy stems from the
government's origins in invasion and occupation -
and from its continued dependency on the US.
Nor is the violence - as has been said -
the inevitable result of the presence of thousands
of American troops. American troops peacefully
occupied Germany and Japan after World War II, and
are quietly based in many countries around the
Illegitimacy is the problem, and a
dependent Iraqi state will always be deemed by
insurgent Iraqi nationalists as illegitimate.
It does no good to simply blame the Bush
administration's policies for creating this
conundrum. There is plenty of blame to be shared,
and in time, those responsible for the worst
misfeasance will no doubt have their accounting.
How can Iraq remain a unitary state,
protect the rights of its various communities,
establish political legitimacy in the eyes of its
people, establish security for its citizens,
eradicate the allies of al-Qaeda inside its
borders, empower the Shi'ite majority and prevent
Iranian influence from overwhelming the country?
Countries, like eggs, are easier to
scramble than unscramble, but there is a way
forward. To see the solution we need to step back
and look at a slightly larger picture - and also a
potentially explosive problem.
Historically, the main conflict in the
greater Persian Gulf region has been the clash
between competing Arab and Persian nationalisms.
This competition is complicated by the fact that
while virtually all Persians are Shi'ite and the
vast majority of Arabs are Sunni, there are in the
Gulf region significant geographical
concentrations of Shi'ite Arabs. As is well-known,
one of these concentrations is in southern Iraq,
where Arab Shi'ites are the majority. Other
Shi'ite Arab communities live as oppressed or
restive minorities in contagious neighboring Saudi
Arabia and Iran.
issues are not new - they have been building up
tensions for centuries. Pressures for a
Shi'ite-dominated Iraq to protect nearby Shi'ite
populations and even absorb them into a Shi'ite
superstate could become irresistible. This may
lead to intercommunal violence across the region
and even the disintegration and reconstitution of
existing states along sectarian lines.
the limited extent that a phased withdrawal is
implemented, it will serve to embolden Shi'ite
Arabs wishing for a Shi'ite Arab state, and will
tend to destabilize existing states in the wider
A stable Iraq must reestablish a
stable national identity that supersedes explosive
sectarian divisions. A stable Iraq must also not
be viewed as an American protectorate - it must be
viewed within the wider Arab world as a legitimate
and independent sovereign state. If not, it will
continue to be a target for destabilization.
Only a shared national identity that
protects all citizens under the rule of law can
facilitate a stable Iraq.
denominator can serve to unite the majority of
Iraqis? What group in Iraq shares either religion
or language with the vast majority of the rest of
the population? What group in Iraq has the closest
and best relations with the wider Arab world? The
answer to all these questions is Sunni Arabs.
Sunni Arabs are the common denominator of
Iraqi society. They are Arab like the Shi'ite
Arabs and Sunni like the vast majority of Kurds.
Sunni Arabs, notwithstanding their small
percentage of the population, are the keystone
that held Iraq together under the Ba'ath, and
until Sunni Arabs are again made central to the
political process, Iraq will continue to
The Arab nationalism of the
Ba'ath Party was held out to be secular, and by
downplaying Sunni parochialism, it attempted (at
least in theory) to be inclusive toward the
Shi'ite Arab community - which together with the
Sunni Arabs, constitute about 80% of Iraq's
Arab nationalism in the form
of the Ba'ath Party was the great common
denominator that held together Saddam's criminal
Ba'athist regime. Ba'athism under Saddam was
implemented by notoriously corrupt and evil people
–there is no denying any of that.
the Bush administration did not want Ba'athism to
survive the war, and accordingly no offer of
surrender was proffered to the former Iraqi
regime. The predictable result was the
disintegration of the Iraqi state, as the
Ba'athist bureaucracy went underground or fled the
What happened to Iraq after the
fall of Baghdad was not the orderly surrender of a
modern state - it was more like a Medieval
conquest. In the looting and chaos that followed
that conquest, all state institutions
disintegrated, and those Iraqis wealthy enough
flee Iraq did so. The freely allowed export of
scrap metal encouraged the wholesale looting of
entire state-owned factories, which were
dismantled, hauled out of the country by truck and
shipped off to be melted down.
and devastation of Iraq left a shattered country
without a political class, bureaucracy or
functional infrastructure. Without modern
institutions to protect them, citizens fell back
on ties of family, clan and denomination. The
result, as we see it today, is a country in chaos
on the verge of a sectarian civil war - a civil
war that because of its sectarian aspect has the
potential to spread beyond the borders of Iraq and
ignite a wider Sunni versus Shi'ite conflict.
The present sorry situation was the result
of a conscious decision to place the destruction
of the Ba'ath Party infrastructure ahead of all
With hindsight, it
is easy to see that there should have been an
orderly surrender and transfer of power after the
invasion. The Ba'ath Party should not have been
driven underground and persecuted after the
invasion, but rather purged of miscreant elements
and those members who were very close to Saddam.
If elements of the Ba'ath leadership had
been permitted to surrender to American forces
either conditionally or unconditionally, then the
chaos that followed the invasion would not have
occurred. After an orderly surrender, the Ba'ath
Party should have been purged, reformed and
The instability in
the current Iraqi political system is the
unavoidable result of destroying the Ba'ath Party
and its state infrastructure.
But that is
all just history now. On December 15,
much-anticipated Iraqi parliamentary elections
will be held under the recently approved
constitution. This election is being eagerly
heralded as a milestone by the US government, but
what some Sunnis call the "American constitution"
is a dead-end for Iraq's problems because it does
not address the core issue - illegitimacy and the
perceived loss of national sovereignty.
Iraq in which all political parties may contest
elections can attract the support of excluded
elements and end the present impasse of
illegitimacy. A reformed Ba'ath Party would have
to first disarm and purge itself of its criminal
and totalitarian elements. Afterward it should be
free to organize like any other political party.
An Iraq governed in coalition with a
reconstituted, reformed and inclusive Ba'ath Party
can end the present impasse of illegitimacy. The
reformed Ba'ath Party, like all other Iraqi
political parties, should be demilitarized. There
is no place in a functioning parliamentary
democracy for armed militias.
Ba'ath Party has been permitted to organize and
operate freely, it will be able to contest
parliamentary elections. This process will take
time. Therefore, the December Iraqi parliamentary
election must be postponed until all political
parties have time to organize for that vote.
The main goal now for the US is to get out
without leaving Iraq to become a jihadi time bomb.
An Iraq that becomes a secure base for Osama bin
Laden and al-Qaeda is a worst-case scenario before
which the return to predominance in Iraq of the
Ba'ath pales in comparison.
The US can
simply do now what it should have done from the
very beginning - allow all groups in Iraq to
become part of the democratic process.
Blinded by hatred of an anti-American
regime and their ignorance of an exotic culture,
US decision-makers have plunged the American
people into a quagmire.
Americans can take
the first step out of this quagmire by drawing on
their rich democratic heritage. The Americans
people are inherently honest and would lose
nothing by admitting that outlawing the Ba'ath was
a mistake. All political parties in Iraq must now
be legalized, and the elections must be postponed.
Mark Rothschild writes on
international relations from Los Angeles,
California. Comments or questions are welcome
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times
Online feature that allows guest writers to have
their say. Please click hereif you are interested in