Thursday, November 30, 2006

Iraq Study Group to Recommend Phased Withdrawal

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group won't officially make its recommendation to the Bush administration until December 6th, but the Washington Post is reporting that they will advise the US to begin a phased withdrawal of combat forces. The committee, which is split between democrats and republicans (including such prominent figures as former secretary of state James Baker and retired supreme court justice Sandra Day O'Connor) has, somewhat remarkably, come to a consensus that I think any realist looking at the Iraq war would have to find some truth in: the US military isn't doing much good by staying in Iraq, and meanwhile a lot of Americans and Iraqis are losing their lives as a result of the continued military presence there.

I opposed invading Iraq in the first place, but since we went in and destroyed much of the national infrastructure, then precipitated what is, unquestionably, a civil war, I have to admit that I feel the US has a moral responsibility to try to fix the damage that has been done. Of course, nothing can bring back the lives of the many Iraqi civilians that have died (nor the American soldiers who were killed in the line of duty, for that matter), but if we can do something to help stabilize and rebuild the country, then it's our duty to the people of Iraq to do so. As years of occupation have shown, though, keeping our troops there isn't helping. If anything, outrage against the occupation may be fueling recruitment for the various armed militias which have sprung up over the last 3 years. If the American forces leave, there's a good possibility that sectarian violence might actually decrease (unfortunately not enough to head off the civil war).

As far as what the US can do to help Iraq, the study group may recommend a regional conference on Iraq, including dialog with neighbors Syria and Iran. The US loses nothing by engaging these countries diplomatically, and other more friendly regimes like the ones in Jordan and Turkey could be valuable in providing support to the fledgling Iraqi government. The US ought to fund humanitarian aid for Iraq, but, as the study group recommends, step back to an advisory and support role for Iraqi police.

Of course, there remains a strong possibility that nothing the US, the Iraqi government, or possible new regional partners do can stop the civil war. Here, it may be useful to remember that Iraq was originally a political fiction created by the British following World War 1 from 3 former Ottoman provinces. The strong-arm authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein's government was able to keep the country relatively stable, but the current chaos might only be solved by partitioning Iraq into predominantly Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions (essentially the same regional divisions along which the Ottomans governed). The Kurds already have quite a bit of experience with democracy and self government (between the 2 Iraq wars, the enforced no-fly zone meant that Hussein's military couldn't touch them), and an independent Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq isn't so far fetched (although Turkey and Iran worry about their own Kurdish minorities clamoring to secede and join a newly independent Kurdistan). Separating the Sunni triangle from the rest of Iraq could cut off a large portion of the ongoing sectarian violence, but doing so would come at a great cost: many people would want to, or feel forced to, relocate, family members would find themselves on opposite sides of the border, and many Iraqis who are members of mixed Sunni/Shia families (let's not forget that, while extremists on both sides battle each other, many Iraqis are a good deal more tolerant) would be torn as to where to make their lives. In short, partition is a drastic option, and it's not something I believe we should do right away. Following troop withdrawal and genuine diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, if violence does not die down, it may be time to consider that. In the meantime, I agree with the study group, the US needs to start packing up and pulling out.

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