With Iraq in a state of bloody chaos, many, from both sides of the political divide, are calling for an immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces. No matter what the consequences of withdrawal, they argue, the Coalition presence is only making the security situation worse and is helping to fuel the insurgency.
Not everyone agrees. Some argue that the Coalition forces should ‘stay the course’ and that withdrawal would precipitate a civil war, leaving the fate of the country to be decided by violence. It could result in Iraq becoming a failed state and a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They fear it would damage the US’s and Britain’s ‘national interests’ and international credibility by handing a victory to the terrorists.
But Iraq is already in a civil war. Day by day, jihadist paramilitaries are gaining experience in urban combat against arguably the best equipped and trained military in the world, the US Army and Marine Corps. Meanwhile, the interests and credibility of the US, Britain and other Coalition partners are only damaged further by this prolonged and disastrous occupation.
The choice, however, is not simply between ‘stay the course’ or ‘cut and run’. Nor should withdrawal itself be seen as either ‘surrender’ or ‘the answer to all of Iraq’s problems’. It is dangerous that the current debate is being thus polarized.
The simple fact is that Coalition troops need to be withdrawn from Iraq because most of the insurgency is actually a resistance to foreign occupation. The majority of Iraqis now want withdrawal. But because a significant part of the violence is occurring between Iraq’s diverse factions and communities, withdrawal on its own could have deadly consequences. It could be as disastrous as the invasion itself. The countries responsible for the invasion cannot simply pull out and leave the Iraqi people to their fate. While they may not be a part of the solution, they have a grave responsibility to support the Iraqi Government in finding a way to ensure the long-term security of the country.
Reports commissioned – and ignored
The Iraq Study Group was a bipartisan Congressional panel facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace and tasked with assessing the situation in Iraq and recommending policies to the US Government. The Group’s final report – published in December 2006 – focused on the phased withdrawal of troops and diplomatic engagement with Iraq’s neighbours. Despite promising to take the report seriously, President Bush largely ignored the Group’s findings and took the opposite course of committing to the ‘surge’. View the report: http://tinyurl.com/ts4vs
The UK Iraq Commission was an independent, cross-party group, tasked with producing a blueprint for future British involvement in Iraq. The final report – published in July 2007 – argued that only Iraqis can improve the situation in Iraq, but that they needed British support to do so. Despite being televised, the Commission did not generate as much interest as the US Iraq Study Group had, and the final report was largely overshadowed by Gordon Brown’s arrival as the new Prime Minister. View the report: http://tinyurl.com/3anf4a
Following George W Bush’s rejection of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group report and the lack of impact of its British equivalent, many in the political, media, academic and activist communities seem to have accepted that nothing can be done, that there is little point in suggesting ways forward for Iraq because they will simply be ignored. But there is a moral imperative not only to keep pointing out the failure of current policies but also to suggest alternative ways forward.
The change of Prime Minister in Britain and growing unease within the US political system present the opportunity for a break with the past. This is why new policies that go beyond withdrawal are so important at this juncture.
They might include the following proposals aimed at resolving some of the causes of the conflict:
1 Withdrawal of combat troops
There should be a rapid withdrawal of all foreign combat troops from Iraq. This should be linked to political and financial support for a new UN or regional stabilization force, but should not be dependent on such a force. While it is likely that such a force will still face resistance, the absence of US and British troops will help to calm many elements of the insurgency, leading to far more manageable levels of violence. The withdrawal should be carried out in discussion with the Iraqi Government and the governments of other countries with troops in Iraq, but should not be delayed because of this. The withdrawal must be coupled with engagement with regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Iraq’s other neighbours, including Syria. These countries have a vested interest in ensuring stability in Iraq, with no desire for a failed state on their borders. However potentially unsavoury to the US, these countries will play a role in the future of Iraq, and must be engaged with now.
2 Assistance to the Iraqi military and security services
In place of combat troops, the Coalition governments should continue to provide training, intelligence and financial support to the Iraqi military and security services for a limited period of time, agreed in advance with the Iraqi Government (say, 12 months for training and intelligence and 48 months for finance). The level of commitment should steadily decrease over this agreed timeframe, and will need to be carefully monitored by the Iraqi Parliament. Any foreign military personnel remaining in Iraq should serve only as instructors and advisers, with a minimum number of support troops providing interim force protection and all being withdrawn at the end of the 12-month training period. Longer-term arrangements might also be made for a UN-supported force guaranteeing Iraq’s international borders and the security of any democratically elected government, but with troops stationed outside of Iraq.
3 Support for the rebuilding of Iraq
Real security for ordinary Iraqis will not just mean freedom from the fear of violence, but must also be based on satisfying some fairly basic needs – electricity, medical care, education, jobs – which require a functioning state apparatus. The US, British and other Coalition governments should therefore begin a programme of massive and sustained aid and technical support for the reconstruction and development of Iraq. This should be unconditional and must not be in the form of loans. Fair compensation, administered by local committees and civil society organizations, should also be paid to civilians who have lost family members, property or livelihoods as a result of Coalition military activity, and specific support needs to be offered to those people who have been displaced by the conflict.
4 Non-interference in the development of Iraq’s oil reserves
With the third highest reserves in the world (behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran), oil currently accounts for more than 90 per cent of Iraq’s government revenues, and is the main driver of the economy. However, the current draft hydrocarbon law focuses on unnecessary Production Sharing Agreements that essentially privatize Iraq’s oil industry by stealth. One of the most important developments would therefore be a revised system for the fair exploitation of Iraq’s oil reserves. By allowing foreign oil companies to benefit disproportionately, with the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in potential revenue for the Iraqi Government, the current course plays into the hands of the insurgents who can easily argue that the invasion was actually about controlling Iraqi oil. There is no reason why Iraq should not maintain democratic control over its own oil industry and use existing government budgets to invest in developing its considerable oil reserves. Increased revenues from developing these reserves would help to sustain the reconstruction of Iraq over the long term.
5 Support for inclusive reconciliation initiatives
Long-term stability is dependent on all factions in the country being able to have a say in the Iraqi political process. Genuine reconciliation will need all sides to have a place at the negotiating table, including those insurgent groups who have targeted civilians or military personnel in terrorist attacks. They must all be brought into the political process wherever possible; exclusion will only cause people to turn to violence as the only course apparently available to them. Such reconciliation initiatives would be greatly aided by an apology from key Coalition governments for the mistakes that have been made during the invasion and occupation, and a public assurance that they will no longer interfere in internal Iraqi affairs. A new fund should also be established to support local, community-based conflict prevention and resolution initiatives as one of the most effective methods for ensuring peace in Iraq’s diverse regions.
What do the Iraqi people want?
For the first time, more Iraqis now back an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops (47%) as opposed to troops remaining until security is restored (34%).
85% of Iraqis have little or no confidence in the US and UK occupation forces.
79% oppose the presence of those forces in Iraq.
72% feel that their presence is actually making the security situation worse.
Source: BBC / ABC News / NHK, September 2007
Of course there will not be agreement with all, or perhaps any, of the above proposals. There are, after all, no easy answers and no guarantees of success in Iraq. But that does not absolve us of our responsibility to develop and propose positive ways out of the current fiasco.
What’s important is that we continue publicly to debate our involvement in Iraq and support those developing effective policies for the withdrawal of troops. Governments must be made to understand that there are ways of withdrawing troops from Iraq that will not necessarily result in disaster. It is up to all of us to make sure this happens.
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