I’ve been reluctant to take this on, both because I’m working on a couple of other projects (my China series, as well as genuine academic work), and because it’s irrelevant to the dispute with Gilliard, but I suppose that I should lay out my own position on Iraq. That my position is in flux only adds to the difficulty.
Disclaimer: If you are intending to respond to this by referring to me as a coward, shameless, gutless, dishonorable, or whatever else you learned from Steve Gilliard, please don’t. You’re wasting my time and yours. If you’d like to respond with a thoughtful critique, please do so.
I have been moving over the last month toward the position that Scott describes in the comments below, which involves setting a definite date for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq. My timeline is probably a bit more extended than Scott’s, and it would be fair to say that I haven’t quite overcome my reservations about withdrawal. Why?
The Iraqi insurgency is bad news. As much as it pains me to say, Christopher Hitchens is right when he argues that the NLF (National Liberation Front, more commonly known as the Viet Cong) was a different critter than the current insurgency. The NLF had a political organization, and acted as a shadow government with a public arm. It had a public face that could be negotiated with. It had clear goals, and the means it employed supported those goals. It had a unified command structure, such that one hand knew what the other was doing. While the NLF did employ violence against civilians, it did so in a careful and measured manner.
The Iraqi insurgency lacks these characteristics. It has no public face. It cannot, apparently, be negotiated with. It has no public goals beyond US withdrawal, and no one, including the Iraqis, believe that it will lay down its arms upon that withdrawal. It employs violence indiscriminately against civilian targets. The central end of its activity seems to be to start a civil war between Shiite and Sunni forces in Iraq. The political structure most easily imaginable, given the constellation of groups involved in the insurgency, would be that of an authoritarian fundamentalist state.
In short, whereas it wasn’t difficult to imagine the situation in South Vietnam improving after the victory of the NLF (if only because the fighting was over), it’s pretty damn difficult to imagine the Iraqi insurgency taking over the state and operating in anything close to a responsible manner. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the constellation of groups involved in the insurgency ever coming together to produce any kind of unified political movement that could then produce a state. Add to this the problem that Shiite elements in Iraq will fight very hard for a very long time to prevent a new Sunni-dominated state, and you have a recipe for a war that could last a very long time and kill lots and lots of people.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if I believed that the current Iraqi state could deal with the insurgency, but I have no reason for such optimism. The US Army and US Marine Corps are exceptional military forces that do poorly in counter-insurgency conflicts (at least the former; the latter is more debatable). They have thus far been unable to defeat the Sunni insurgency, or really even to notably slow it down. Iraqi forces, as presently constituted, are almost certain to be less effective against the insurgency than the US organizations. There are several reasons for this, some having to due with short periods of training, others to do with low morale, but the most important reason is that the Iraqi forces are almost completely US trained. The US Army can’t do counter-insurgency, and certainly can’t teach it. The Iraqi Army will be even worse than the US, because it has poor doctrine AND it lacks all the other advantages that the US organizations have.
Thus, I expect that any withdrawal will result in a very bad insurgency going up against less than competent state forces. The prognosis for success is very, very grim, I’m not optimistic regarding Iraq’s ability to avoid a long, brutal, destructive civil war. I expect that lots of people will die (more even than we’ve killed), and the region will suffer from the effects of a broken Iraqi state for a very long time.
So, why have I been gravitating toward a withdrawal?
I am not confidant about the ability of the United States to defeat the insurgency. Every year that the US continues to fight radicalizes the insurgency, radicalizes the region, and helps break down whatever forces might be friendly to us in Iraq today. I have a terrible sense that we are only delaying the inevitable by staying in Iraq, and, moreover, that we are making the reckoning more terrible than it needs to be. I am deeply skeptical about the ability of the Bush administration to improve the Iraq situation in any way, and I’m not convinced either a)that there will be anything left to save by 2009, or b)that Bush will be replaced by someone more competent.
But, I’m not quite there yet. Insurgencies have been defeated in the past, and the US Army and Marine Corps have a lot of smart people who might figure it out. The political process in Iraq may actually pay dividends by creating the sort of legitimacy that the South Vietnamese state never had, or at least had only in its last years. The Sunnis may simply weary of fighting, and the Shiites may figure out a way to bring enough Sunni elements into the political process to limit the size and power of the insurgency.
So, for now I’m still inclined to argue that the occupation should continue. But I can see the merit of the withdrawal option, and I may be there before all that long.