Abandonment of Iraq Is Wrong - Erik Gustafson
Erik K. Gustafson is the executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), based in Washington, D.C, and serves on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense.Abandonment of Iraq Is Wrong
By Erik Gustafson
May 29, 2005
In April we lost Marla Ruzicka, a passionate American advocate for victims of war, and Sheikha Lameah Khaddouri al-Sakri, a member of Iraq’s National Assembly and an eloquent advocate for women's rights. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, violence has also claimed the lives of 1,214 U.S. service members and at least 21,000 Iraqi civilians as of May 1, 2005.
Under such circumstances, the demand for "immediate withdrawal" is understandable. We want the tragedy to end. But immediate withdrawal is not a policy option. It's a statement of protest in reaction to the worst U.S. foreign policy blunders in a generation.
As the Reverend Jim Wallis of Sojourners eloquently writes in God’s Politics, “Saying no is good, but having an alternative is better. Protest is not enough; it is necessary to show a better way.”
Nowhere is this truer than in U.S. Iraq policy.
Before we can consider a viable alternative to U.S. occupation, we must begin with an accurate assessment of the current situation in Iraq. First off, we must acknowledge that Iraq is not a country in Southeast Asia. Although some worthwhile parallels may be drawn, the U.S. war in Vietnam offers more contrasts than similarities. The insurgency in Iraq has no unified vision, no Ho Chi Minh. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the people suffered under a brutal dictator; now it is a relief to Iraqis that Saddam Hussein is finally gone. When the U.S. left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, it was clear the war would end. In Iraq, it would likely escalate.
Until Iraq has a reliable government and a combat-effective military and police force capable of serving and protecting its people, a U.S. withdrawal would leave a tremendous power vacuum. This would further destabilize Iraq, abandon neighborhoods to organized crime and political violence, and potentially pull rival powers, namely Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, into a wider conflict.
Immediate withdrawal would remove U.S. military protection of Iraq’s transitional government and eliminate an indispensable “force multiplier” for the Iraqi police and military. Unable to match pervasive organized crime and insurgents, Iraq’s fledgling security personnel would abandon their posts en masse. The militias of rival Shiite parties and Kurdish peshmerga would be expected to put the protection of their own members and interests ahead of that of the nation. For the militarily well-organized Kurds, that could mean seizing oil-rich Kirkuk or pushing for independence, either of which could precipitate civil war and foreign intervention.
Without strong national institutions, the rule of law, trust in a lasting power-sharing arrangement, or adequate defense, the transitional government and emerging constitution will not survive. And the threat of intercommunal conflict would grow.
“Those of us who were there in March 1991 while Iraqis were being massacred by Saddam Hussein recognize a moral obligation not to abandon the Iraqi people for a second time," says Charles Sheehan-Miles, a decorated combat veteran who directs Veterans for Common Sense, a progressive national security organization of more than 12,000 veterans.
The U.S. invasion not only sparked violent Iraqi insurgents, it opened Iraq’s borders to foreign terrorists who now pose a threat to international security. As with the careless Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, a precipitous departure by the United States from Iraq would invite Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks operating there to claim victory and solidify its power in the region.
That’s why Howard Dean recently said, “Now that we’re there, we’re there, and we can’t get out.” He noted that Al Qaeda “will set up shop” in Iraq if the U.S. pulls out immediately.
Daniel Byman of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy writes: “Here is where the Vietnam parallel breaks down. From Iraq, jihadists would continue their worldwide struggle against the United States and U.S. allies in the region: the equivalent of the Viet Cong deciding to strike California and Australia after they had won Saigon. Saudi Arabia in particular would be vulnerable, given the jihadist-linked unrest in that country and its long and open border with Iraq.”
Though we would certainly wish it were different, bringing an end to U.S. military presence in Iraq will not end the violence for the foreseeable future. Foreign extremists and Iraqi insurgents will continue to assassinate government officials, trade unionists, women activists, academics, Shiites, and members of other targeted communities.
Yes, Iraqi leaders want the U.S. to leave, but not immediately.
In January, the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite party that is close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revised its position from a call for a definitive timetable for withdrawal of multinational troops to an emphasis on the importance of establishing Iraq’s capacity to provide for its own security. This change reflects a growing understanding among Iraqi leaders that without a force capable of guaranteeing some measure of security, conditions would get even worse, no matter who was responsible for creating the situation to begin with.
In late January, Prime Minister-Elect Ibrahim Jaafari told Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer, “If the United States pulls out too fast, there would be chaos. We would expect Iraq might break up because we don’t have a powerful government to prevent this from happening. So it’s difficult to mention a date until the situation gets back to normal.”
Even the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr falls short of calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. Marking the two-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, tens of thousands of his supporters rallied in Firdos Square, Baghdad, demanding only that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal.
“You can’t fix a mistake with another mistake," says Zaid Albanna, board president of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. "Things can get much worse. The U.S. has a moral and international obligation to correct the situation and compensate Iraq and the Iraqi people for all the damage it has created.”
Of course, popular resentment over the lack of security, the failure to hold senior officials accountable for U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the slow rate of reconstruction have led some Iraqis to demand an immediate withdrawal. These failures have also given rise to widespread Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation, both nonviolent and violent. However, the vast majority of Iraqis in the Transitional National Assembly—-including the three largest voting blocs—-do not support a U.S. withdrawal at this time. Instead, they are determined to accelerate the process by which the U.S. occupation is made obsolete.
Over the past two years, the Iraqi people have witnessed massive looting and destruction, the violent deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, skyrocketing crime and unemployment, increased terrorism, contractor abuses, the mismanagement of $8.8 billion in Iraqi oil revenue, and the torture of fellow citizens in U.S. custody. "Stay the course" is not an option.
Fortunately, a U.S. policy shift has been underway for over a year now, thanks to Iraqi leaders, solidarity efforts and popular resistance. Without the change, the Bush administration would still be operating from the original script of U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservative ideologues. The Pentagon would still be in control of nation-building in Iraq. Paul Bremer would still be in Baghdad. Iraq’s oil sector would be privatized. And there would have been no elections.
Since gaining control of the $18.4 billion aid package for rebuilding Iraq, the State Department has reprogrammed $4.8 billion to support smaller projects that create jobs and job training, rather than large contracts for Bechtel and Halliburton. The changes also redirect funds to Iraqi contractors, rather than expensive Western corporations. And the Bush Administration has accelerated the training of Iraqi security forces. A leading military strategist and critic of Bush's Iraq policy, Anthony Cordesman, reports, “The good news is that very real progress is being made to organize a mix of forces that can deal with Iraq’s critical crime problem, and in creating the kind of combat elements within Iraqi forces that may be able to take on insurgents and terrorists when they get the right leadership, experience, and equipment.”
Yet to overcome the legacy of Saddam Hussein and the post-invasion failures of the Bush administration, far more must change. On the eve of the U.S. invasion, Saddam released tens of thousands of convicted criminals, including murderers on death row. Since then, more than 5,000 Iraqis have been kidnapped and Baghdad city morgues alone have reported more than 14,000 deaths by other than natural causes.
Contributing to violence and organized crime, Iraq’s unemployment rate is as high as 40%. Yet, outside of Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces, a nation of 26 million operates without a functioning judicial system or effective police force.
For those Iraqis held in custody, Human Rights Watch reports: "Iraqi authorities, in particular the Ministry of Interior, practiced torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of access by families and lawyers to detainees, improper treatment of detained children, and abysmal conditions in pre-trial detention facilities." On April 11, 2005, Agence France Press (AFP) reported that U.S. forces and Iraqi authorities have 17,000 men and women in custody. Without a functioning court system in place, legal due process is unavailable to most of Iraq's prisoners. Furthermore, roughly 11,000 are being held as "security detainees," without formal charges. One year after the disclosure of the now infamous torture photos from Abu Ghraib, we should not only demand a special prosecutor to investigate and hold U.S. officials accountable, we should work for the development of a legal system that makes a difference in the lives of all Iraqis.
As a progressive, I believe the most responsible way for the U.S. to get out of Iraq is through effective institution building. We must provide Iraqis with the funding and technical assistance they need to build and strengthen the civilian institutions that underpin their fledgling democracy.
We must therefore work to build strong, international support for the following four goals:
• Ensuring the protection of civilians and human rights;
• Building Iraq’s institutional capacity for security, rule of law, and the prevention of corruption;
• Job creation and Iraqi-led reconstruction;
• Increased political inclusion and reconciliation.
Advancing these goals will require the assistance and cooperation of other nations, including Iraq's neighbors. It will also require the resources of the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League and other multilateral institutions. Therefore, the Bush administration must allow greater international involvement in Iraq and exercise the kind of leadership that works with the world, not against it.
Finally, we need to guarantee there will be an end to U.S. military presence in Iraq. To do so, the Bush Administration must issue an unequivocal declaration that the U.S. has no long-term interests in the territory or natural resources of Iraq, has no intention of maintaining permanent military bases on Iraqi soil, and will fully withdraw either at the request of Iraq’s government or once Iraq is able to provide for its own security, whichever comes first.
This statement would help to restore America’s standing in the world, address widespread Iraqi fears and suspicions about U.S. intentions, and create conditions that shift support away from insurgency toward participation in Iraq’s new government.
On the home front, such a statement is something all progressives can call for, alongside a key constituency too long absent from the contemporary peace movement, Iraqi Americans. Together we can create the conditions necessary for a responsible U.S. withdrawal (not abandonment) and for a fully independent, stable and democratic Iraq. That should be our goal.
Erik K. Gustafson is the executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), based in Washington, D.C, and serves on the board of directors of Veterans for Common Sense.
© 2005 The Progressive