Achcar on Cole Proposals for Withdrawal of US Ground Troops
‘ Dear Juan,
As a regular reader and occasional contributor to your blog, which I believe is doing a real service to all those concerned with the situation in Iraq, and as an activist in the antiwar movement, I feel it necessary to comment on your last piece of argumentation posted today, August 22, 2005, where you argue at length against the “US Out Now” position. I was surprised to see that, on this score, you are quite a bit softer toward the US occupation of Iraq than Andrew Bacevich, whose piece The Washington Post ran yesterday.
The core of your argument is stated from the beginning when you talk about “the lid the US military is keeping on what could be a volcano.” Using the same “lid” metaphor, I would reply that the lid that the US military is keeping on the Iraqi situation is precisely what makes the pot boil so dangerously and threaten to explode at any moment.
You add: “All it would take would be for Sunni Arab guerrillas to assassinate Grand Ayatollah Sistani. And, boom.” Agreed: that could definitely lead to a disaster. But, aside from the fact that Sistani does not rely for his protection on US or any other foreign troops, do you seriously believe for one second that, if he were assassinated, the presence of US troops would prevent the disaster? You know quite well that, not only is this last assumption highly unlikely, but it is also quite possible to make the opposite point: that such an explosion in the presence of US troops would just make things worse, by greatly increasing the number of casualties when the US military resorts to the “conventional” weapons of mass destruction that it possesses and has not hesitated to use in cases like Fallujah.
The only hope one could have of avoiding the slide into a full-blown, devastating civil war — if Sistani were to be assassinated — is if the forces involved in the political process, i.e. those not already involved in the low-intensity civil war going on in Iraq, were successful in achieving control over their constituencies after an inevitable first outburst of anger, by emphasizing that the perpetrators are either the Baathists or Zarqawi’s followers or the like, that their objective is exactly to ignite a civil war, and that the best reply to that is precisely to pay heed to Sistani’s insistence on the necessity of avoiding any kind of sectarian war.
As for the other argument that you make implicitly, namely that the presence of US troops in Iraq would prevent the shift from a local civil war to “a regional war, drawing in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey,” this too is unconvincing. One could more easily argue that it is the very presence of US troops in Iraq, combined with Washington’s provocative policy toward Iran and Syria, that threatens very concretely to ignite a regional war, with all the consequences that you may imagine, including those on the price of oil, the importance of which you underline. Isn’t it already quite clear, by the way, that Washington’s saber rattling toward Teheran is responsible for a great deal of the recent hike in oil prices?
Let me now comment on the “responsible stance” that you advocate in the guise of an “exit strategy.” I’ll take up your main arguments:1) “US ground troops should be withdrawn ASAP from urban areas as a first step. Iraqi police will just have to do the policing. We are no good at it. If local militias take over, that is the Iraqi government’s problem. The prime minister will have to either compromise with the militia leaders or send in other Iraqi militias to take them on. Who runs Iraqi cities can no longer be a primary concern of the US military…”
Strange indeed! If the argument against the “Out Now” position is that the withdrawal of the troops ASAP would lead to civil war, everything in the above paragraph backfires completely.
2,3&4) US ground troops would be withdrawn, in a second phase, while US air bases would be kept and US air forces used in support of the Iraqi government: “we would replicate our tactics in Afghanistan of providing the air force for the Northern Alliance infantry and cavalry.” This, you believe, “could prevent the outbreak of fullscale war.” And than you add: “This way of proceeding, which was opened up by the Afghanistan War of 2001-2002, and which depends on smart weapons and having allies on the ground, is the major difference between today and the Vietnam era, when dumb bombs (and even carpet bombing) couldn’t have been deployed effectively to ensure the enemy did not take or hold substantial territory.”
First, starting from the end, I am surprised that, whereas you stress the difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan, you don’t see the much greater one — in terms of the nature of the terrain, of the kind of war (urban vs. rural guerilla), etc. — between Afghanistan and Iraq. From the military point of view, your suggestion of a replica in Iraq of US support to the Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan is, to be frank, quite nonsensical. The proof of the pudding is that, if anything of the kind could work in Iraq, I am sure the Pentagon would not have waited until they read your blog.
Second, have you considered that the goal of the Bush administration might precisely be to keep US air bases in Iraq for the long haul, and that arguments such as yours are very likely to be used to support this goal? Keeping in mind the nature of the dominant political forces in Iraq, and everything you yourself have written repeatedly about their Iranian connections, do you seriously believe that Iraqi majority leaders would agree to US air bases remaining in their country after the withdrawal of all ground troops? And even if we assumed that to be the case, don’t you see that this would be the best recipe for the continuation of the “insurgency” and for regional conflicts, for that matter?7&8) “The US should demand as a quid pro quo for further help” — a. “that elections in Iraq henceforward be held on a district basis so as to ensure proper representation in parliament for the Sunni Arab provinces.” ; and b. “that the Iraqi government announce an amnesty for all former Baath Party members who cannot be proven to have committed serious crimes, including crimes against humanity. Former Baathists who have been fired from the schools and civil bureaucracy must be reinstated, and no further firings are to take place.”
First of all, let me state clearly that I am resolutely opposed to the US government demanding any quid pro quo for “help” it could offer the Iraqi authorities: this reminds me of the Godfather’s “offer you can’t refuse.” Second, the procedure of Iraqi elections is no more the business of the US than that of US elections is the business of Iraq. Third, Washington’s imposition of an amnesty for whatever Baathists, aside from its reaching the highest degree of cynicism, would be the best way to replace the frustration of the “Sunni Arab political elites” that you are keen to quench with the frustration of the overwhelming majority of the Kurdish and Shia Arab masses and political elites (except Allawi and his crowd)! Of course, Washington, with its global arrogance, sees no problem with ignoring the basic principles of peoples’ right to self-determination and non-interference of a state in the internal affairs of another — both inscribed in the UN Charter of which the US is the foremost world violator — but surely the antiwar movement shouldn’t take a similar position.
For the rest, I think that Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran himself and definitely not a radical, has made very clearly the main commonsensical arguments for the call for bringing US troops home now so that I don’t need to repeat them here. I am sure, Juan, that you are genuinely seeking to elaborate a “responsible stance,” as you call it, which would be in the best interest of both the US and Iraqi peoples. I believe, however, that you are on the wrong track and hope that you will rethink your stance accordingly and join the increasing majority of both populations calling for a total and immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
With my best regards,
Gilbert Achcar ‘