It is widely recognized that the situation in Iraq is highly problematic and the management of the occupation has, up until now, been exceptionally incompetent. Members of both parties have expressed discontent and frustration with the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. With this broad acceptance that the situation in Iraq is abysmal, it is remarkable how little discussion there is about options for withdrawal. Our best option, at this point, is to withdraw our troops from Iraq.
There are a variety of fears and concerns that lead the public to oppose withdrawal from Iraq. The Bush administration has suggested that Iraq would become a base for al-Qaida operations worldwide, and many feel that departing now would result in a rapid descent into civil war.
Let us begin with the fear that Iraq will become a safe haven for al-Qaida and a future base of operations. This thesis is wholly irrational when one considers the actual size of al-Qaida’s presence in Iraq and the antagonistic relationship it has with the main factions in Iraq. Al-Qaida’s influence is weak even amongst Sunni Arabs. Preceding the most recent parliamentary election, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s representative in Iraq at the time, ordered all Iraqis to abstain from voting. In spite of this, Sunni Arab turnout was large. Most insurgent groups actually encouraged voting in order to gain a foothold in the new parliament.
It is important to recognize that most insurgents are not religious zealots. In fact, most estimates put the radical religious element of the insurgency at approximately 5 percent with an estimated high of 10 percent. Most are nationalists committed to ending the occupation. In reality, few attacks are targeted at civilians. Most are directed towards coalition and Iraqi security forces, the latter being seen as collaborators. As President Bush said, no one likes to live under occupation.
The proliferation of violence throughout Iraq and the pressures of life under occupation; coupled with the torture scandals involving U.S. troops; come together to ensure a highly unstable environment. This, in turn, allows sectarian tensions to manifest themselves violently. Even so, most Iraqis are not interested in civil war. If the pressures of occupation continue to grow, such a conflict may still prove unavoidable. Removing the pressures of occupation is essential to preventing a further intensification of sectarian violence.
Many Iraqis fear that the U.S. intends to base troops in Iraq indefinitely, and there is a widely held concern that the occupation will never end. As the situation deteriorates, sympathy for the insurgency will continue to grow. Arguments that electoral participation is an endorsement of our presence are baseless. The largest parliamentary bloc is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who is publicly committed to expelling occupation forces. As previously mentioned, Sunni insurgents have also encouraged voting. Many hope to use the parliament as another tool to end the occupation – potentially a very good thing.
It is important to avoid having Iraqis associate our withdrawal with the violence. If democracy is to have any hope of outlasting us, Iraqis cannot associate the parliament with support for occupation. The ideal situation would be for the parliament to call on the coalition to set a timetable for withdrawal. At this point, the U.S. could set a hard date for departure and the parliament – not the insurgency – could claim credit for ending the occupation.
Some argue that a timetable would embolden the insurgents. This argument fails to consider the reason most insurgents fight: to end the occupation. If it becomes clear that we’re leaving, recruitment will prove far more difficult for insurgents. Attacks against infrastructure will also be impossible to justify as attempts to undermine the coalition’s staying power, since its departure is set. Attacks on infrastructure will instead be viewed as direct attacks on Iraq’s national interests.
Some have called for an overhaul of occupation policy rather than a withdrawal timetable. This ignores the fact that the people who would have to formulate this highly complex policy are the same members of the administration who developed the original invasion and occupation plans. With political realities in mind, a timetabled withdrawal is the only viable option still available to end the violence in Iraq.
-The writer, a senior majoring in Middle East studies, is a Hatchet columnist.