The illusion of phased withdrawal

Asia Times

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 are 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 abilities.

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.

If 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 Party.

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 force.

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 heads.

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 communication capacity.

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.

A 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 country.

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 contingency.

New military communication systems are now being deployed that point to a permanent US presence in Iraq – after an ostensible phased withdrawal.

The 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.

The 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.

From the 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.

Those 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.

To the 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 American soldiers.

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 paramilitary forces.

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.

The 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 politically illegitimate.

The perception 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 world.

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.

These intercommunal 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.

To 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 region.

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.

What common 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 disintegrate.

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{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of Iraq’s population.

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.

Indeed, 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 country.

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.

The looting 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 other considerations.

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 finally rehabilitated.

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.

An 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.

After the 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.

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