On Iraq Withdrawal: How fast is too fast?

So  it looks like US troops will be out of Iraq by_2010:

Mr. Obama agreed to give commanders 19 months to withdraw all combat brigades, 3 months longer than he promised on the campaign trail, to guard against any resurgence of violence. The bulk of the forces will remain in place until nearly next year to allow commanders to keep as many forces as possible through parliamentary elections in December.

After August 2010, the Obama plan will leave behind 35,000 to 50,000 of the 142,000 American troops now in Iraq to advise and train Iraqi security forces, conduct discrete counterterrorism missions and protect American civilian and military personnel working in the country, including State Department reconstruction teams.

But is it as simple as this?  Does the US actually control the destiny of Iraq to the extent that it can just set a date for withdrawal and then leave?    Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation warns that new realities are complicating things:

But much of the discussion is being conducted from a Washington-centric perspective that ignores how radically the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed by President Bush late last year, has altered the landscape for U.S. military forces operating in Iraq.

As part of the SOFA, the United States is required to withdraw its military forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from the country entirely by the end of 2011. Though some critics think this timeline is too fast, there is a good chance that the U.S. may be forced to withdraw even sooner: In order to coax reticent parliamentarians into approving the agreement, the Maliki government has agreed to hold a national referendum in July of this year to ratify the SOFA. If the SOFA fails to pass, the United States would have just one year to withdraw all its military forces from Iraq.

Beyond forcing an expedited withdrawal, a failed referendum would likely cause even U.S. allies among Iraqi politicians to ratchet up the level of nationalist demagoguery against the U.S. military presence to position themselves for their parliamentary campaigns. In such a heated atmosphere, insurgents could also prove more likely to step up their activity against withdrawing U.S. troops, radicalizing the environment for parliamentary elections and further complicating the redeployment of U.S. troops. Whether or not a future U.S.-Iraqi military relationship is advisable beyond the terms of the SOFA, such a scenario would likely preclude the Iraqi government from seeking support for it. Opponents of the United States would also frame a withdrawal under these circumstances as a repudiation of the United States and a defeat for U.S. policy in the region.

In this context, significant drawdowns in upcoming months will become a litmus testfor the credibility and seriousness of the Obama administration in respecting public commitments to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. While the exact timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces is less important, if no significant redeployments occur prior to the national referendum, Iraqi public opinion could very well conclude that Washington is determined to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq regardless of the public pronouncements and treaty obligations to the contrary.

Better that the U.S. begin withdrawal now, on its own terms–and in the process, enhance the chances that the SOFA will not be rejected by the Iraqi people. At the same time, President Obama would project an unmistakable message to the Arab world that the United States is serious in recalibrating the nature of its engagement with the region.

In some quarters, it is widely assumed that Iraqis’ rhetorical opposition to the U.S. military presence belies a begrudging acceptance of U.S. troops as the price of preserving recent security gains. However, gambling on Iraqi support for a continuing foreign military presence would seem to be a risky policy-planning approach that could create the conditions for a hasty withdrawal on highly unfavorable terms.

Undoubtedly, U.S. forces continue to play a vital role in providing combat and logistical support to Iraqi forces. Their presence might also serve as a buffer against the outbreak of widespread ethno-sectarian warfare and provide a point of leverage–albeit of diminishing value–in prodding Iraqi political forces to come to terms with the fundamental questions on governance, territory, and resources that still divide the country. But even if advocates of a rapid redeployment of U.S. forces overestimate the capabilities of Iraqi forces to secure the country with diminished U.S. assistance, the continued presence of U.S. forces in any capacity is now wholly dependent on Iraqi approval of the SOFA. Iraqi public opinion now matters, whether we like it or not, and behaving as if the question of troop redeployments is a question to be answered solely in Washington will further strain U.S. relations with Iraq and the Arab world.

I couldn’t agree more about the perils of Washington-centricism but I’m worried about US withdrawal from Iraq  from the other direction. — too fast rather than too slow.  Yes, there is a relative sense of security in the year 2009 and a strong case can be made that the US presence is playing a role in preventing political reconciliation.  But what about all the really bad things that could still go wrong in Iraq?    What happens if we withdraw by 2010 as promised but the day after all hell breaks out and the country descends into serious sectarian warfare?  That’s clearly not in the interests of the US or any of its allies in the region.  But here’s the problem:  Once American troops leave Iraq, they’re not going back.   It will be very difficult diplomatically and especially on the domestic political level to reinsert 50-60 thousand combat troops back into Iraq to restore security but if all hell breaks lose in Iraq, there’s no doubt that the US will be called on to do just that….

So I think the “Stupidest Man” is spot-on.  Most people agree that launching the war in Iraq was extremely stupid to begin with, but that’s irrelevant now.  We, the United States, do own the country, or at least have certain obligations to it:

My worry is that we have come to see Iraq as somehow separate from the rest of the world, as if the country existed in its own war-damaged vacuum. The result is that while we have paid much attention to the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics and the ebb and flow of the security situation, we have all but ignored outside forces that can quickly become catalysts for upheaval. One such force is the global recession, which has sent oil prices plummeting and has left Iraq reeling from financial shock. This is probably the biggest threat the country now faces, and it’s quite possible that the hard-won security gains will unravel not because of renewed sectarian violence but because of, well, lack of money. Yet this possibility, obvious as it may sound, is nowhere to be seen in Lynch’s list of contingencies. What is even more troubling is that because of our tunnel vision, none of us saw it coming. What else is there that we’re not seeing?

So, yes — I do think the prudent thing for Obama to do is to go slow. After six years of disaster, the United States owes it to Iraq not to pull the plug in haste. It may not matter that vast areas of the country, such as Nineweh and Diyala, “remain kinetic”, as an Iraq-savvy commenter put it in FP; but it matters a great deal if the whole country goes up in flames while America watches. If you thought the invasion was bad for the U.S. image and ultimately demoralising for Americans, just think what that would do.

And all COIN types in Washington should read the Stupidest Man’s blog  for a daily dose of the security issues of Afghanistan/ Pakistan/Iraq  from a non-American, perspective.

Why Won’t They Go Back II? Bring on the Russians?

As I mentioned yesterday, with the Shia-led government in Iraq now taking control of the Sunni Awakening Forces,  the security gains in Anbar province  are in jeopardy.  High five  to Abu Aardvark for flagging this MUST-READ interview with the leader of the Resistance in Baghdad.  Yesterday,  I wondered whether this development would give Al-Qaeda a second chance in Iraq.  The Resistance leader (and also Adrian)  does not think so- but it could be a good opportunity for Russia. 

We are waging a battle of destiny against the Islamic Party. Al Qaeda does not pose any danger to Iraq anymore, and it is finished. The real danger are those that fight us in the name of legitimacy and religion–I mean the Islamic Party. Had it not been for the intervention of the government and the US forces, this party would not have lasted for two days in Al-Anbar.

So might they turn to Russia?

Many Iraq experts in Washington discount the possibility that the Russians would lend their support to a new resistance force in Iraq, but they do not entirely rule it out.

Earlier this month, a former top Baathist official openly called on Moscow for help. Salah Mukhtar, who was an aide to Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi foreign minister under Saddam, and who was Iraq’s ambassador to India and Vietnam, said that Russia’s “pre-emptive step in Georgia is a formidable act from the strategic point of view in its timing, aims and tactics,” and he called on Russia to direct its attention to Iraq:

The United States’ Achilles’ heel is Iraq…. The US colonialist project to have absolute control over our planet can be buried in Iraq.

Only through backing the patriotic Iraqi resistance and strengthening its military capabilities can we accelerate the end of US colonialism all over the world…. The key to defeat the United States in the world and to corner it into isolation is Russia providing support to the Iraqi resistance directly or indirectly.

The key to freeing the world by muzzling the United States requires Russian involvement in the Iraq battle.

Despite the bravado in that statement, it’s not impossible that Russia might be toying with the idea of engaging the United States in the Middle East more directly. In all likelihood, it would depend on a significant further deterioration of US-Russian relations over Georgia, Iran and other points of contention. In the meantime, though, it is likely that Russian intelligence agents are quietly connecting with Iraqis.

Middle Eastern media is full of pro-Russia sentiment and many people,  probably a majority, want to see an expanded Russian presence in the region as a counter-balance to the US.   Fahmy Huwedi, the super influential Egyptian commentator,  recently criticized the Arab governments for not doing enough to exploit Russia anger with the US and Israel over the war in Georgia.   Moscow’s return was the subject of a recent episode of Al-Jazeera’s Al-Itijah Al-Muakis where 90% of the viewers said they saw it as a good thing.  See a recent  post at the Egypt Blog for more on these points.  The oppurtinity is there for Russia to take a more active role in the region at the expense of the US  if it wants and many Middle Easterners would see this as a good thing.

Abdel Bari Atwan’s 9/11 Report

……. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of London based Al-Quds Al-Qarabi,  wrote a long analytical piece analyzing the success or failure of the US war on terror.  Atwan’s views are very worth listening to for several reasons. 
1) As editor of Al-Quds he has major connections to people who are very close to the events, both from the sides that are favorable to the US and those that are opposed.  What I am saying is that he has acccess to the views/analysis of people from the Taliban/  that no Americans are going to get or even try to get.  So his analysis needs to be paid special attention.
2) He has major connections with the Islamist movements and has interviewed Bin Laden.  He also  wrote a very good book on Al-Qaeda.  
3) His paper is considered independent and is more intellectually consistent than bigger papers such as Al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat. 

4) Also,  a couple weeks ago I had a  post  asking the question Why is the Taliban the enemy?  Some disagreed with my argument that the Taliban is not a natural enemy of the US so it could be manipulated into turning against Al-Qaeda.   Atwan’s  analysis supports my point.  For all of these reasons, I have translated the article.  I am not a translator, but the following can be considered a reliable (in the sense of capturing all the ideas)  chronological translation of the article:

Bootleg Translation of Atwan’s Article

Two years ago, Bush, and his ally Blair announced they they had discovered an Al-Qaeda plot to blow up a number of American airplanes using liquid bombs.  The British government led by Tony Blair, ally of Bush in the war against terror, arrested about 30 Britains from Muslim backgrounds, and took measures to stop liquids from going on planes, causing unprecedented confusion, as this came at the peak of summer travel season in Europe. 

At that same time, we at Al-Quds doubted or were speptical of this alleged conspiracy,  which should be seen in the framework of  US and European Islamophobia ,  and is used to justify Blair and Bush’s bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We also said that these two men, who are known for their religious fervor and hostility to Islam employed a politics of fear, with this airplane conspiracy being only the most prominent example.  Just yesterday an independent trial court rejected this conspiracy and acquited the accused in a trial that lasted for two years, costing the tax payers upwards of 50 million British pounds.

The trial revealed that these accused had never bought a ticket even gotten near a British airport… But journalistic reports confirmed that President Bush and his VP wanted some kind of victor to use in order to help Republican candidates in the 2006 Congressional Elections, and they found in this alleged/claimed conspiracy a priceless opportunity. 

Fabricating evidence is not something unusual for Bush or Blair.  Weren’t they the ones who fabricated evidence of a relationship between Saddam and Al-Qaeda? Or of Iraq’s relationship to uranium in Niger in order to justify their aggression against it?  Isn’t Tony Blair, now the Middle East peace envoy, the one who went before Parliament in dramatic form with the dossier that said they had reliable information that Saddam Hussein had WMD that he was capable of using against British and US forces in less than 45 minutes?

Noone denies the presence of Islamist extremist organizations which use terrorism and violence as a measure to fight against the West, reacting to its wars in Iraq and as revenge for its victims, like what happened in the London attacks three years ago. But perhaps we can also say that the threat from these groups is exaggerated by Security forces and popular newspapers to justify security measures and strong laws against Muslim communities in the West, portraying them as the source of all evil.

Thursday is the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which were the beginning of the war against terrorism and the occupation of Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the death of 1.5 million Muslims and Arabs, as well as the death of 4k American soldiers, and the loss of as much as 5 trillion dollars.  Perhaps the best way to measure its succes or failure is to look at what President Bush himself were the original goals:  the arrest or capture of the two leaders Mullah Omar and Bin Laden and the complete destruction of their two organizations, and to make the world safer and more peaceful.

The war on terror toppled the regimes of the Taliban and after the Saddam and the occupation of the two countries.  But it did not succeed in capturing either leader and did not make the world safer, but actually made it worse. Furthermore, the two movements have returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan and now have  control over most of the first and half of the second, and run training camps for new volunteers who numbers in the thousands.

The Al-Qaeda organization might have been exposed to a major setback in Iraq because of the Awakening Forces ( paid off by the Americans) and because of their takfir politics and emphasis on setting up an Islamic state, but perhaps this setback is just temporary, because the vast majority of its members of Iraqi, we have to consider how Tanzim Al-Qaeda was able to return  to Afghanistan five years after the destruction of its base at Tora Bora.   The theory of those who participated in the Awakening was at its roots, based on distinction between the Far Enemy (the US) and the Near Enemy (Iran) and the necessity of focusing on fighting the near enemy , considering it the greater danger, even if that means allying with the Far Enemy.  But this theory began to crumble after the Malaki government forced the US to stop funding the Awakening forces, and brought them under its influence and control.   This means that the 100k who fought with Al-Qaeda, then turned against them, now finds themselves as Pariahs and outcasts after they were used to establish the Occupation, but then were thrown in the trash like a used napkin

President Bush wants to use the Iraq Awakening model in Aghanisan, but despite its partial and temporary success there, it is difficult to see it succeed in Afg. not because the time is late but because the Taliban has imposed its control over Afghanistan and the American defeat has become certain.   US forces commit massacres and heavy handed actions on a daily basis, knowing that their program has failed and the the Taliban-Al-Qaeda victory is inevitable.  They resort to heavy handed aerial attacks but the leadership forgets that airborne bombardment can not settle the issue on the ground.  On the other hand, increasing the number of land forces (now at 37k) will only give the Taliban more targets to attack

America’s problem is bigger than Afghanistan, which is an unwinnable war.  The bigger problem is in Pakistianwhich is becoming quickly a failed state, which will inevitably fall in the hands of radical Islamistgroups or a military dictatorship with little popularity.  Notice how  71% of Pakistanis are opposed to cooperation with the US war on terror and 51% oppose the war against the Taliban according to a poll done last July by Gallup.   The Taliban in Pakistan constitute a greater threat than the Taliban in Afghanistan because it posses 80k fighters ready to due in suicide operations against Western forces.  American attacks against Pakistani tribal regions will only increase the popularity of extremist groups in Pakistan as these attacks are considered a violation of Pakistani national dignity and increase extremism.   And these suicide operations were unknown in Pak and Afg before 9/11 but now they are something normal thanks to the presence of AQ experts who first learned the trade in Iraq.

The first leader the new President Zardari met was  Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, which he did to confirm to Washington that he will stay a close ally in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.  But this man, who has spent 11 of the last 20 years in in jail on corruption charges is not going to stay in power long, and US support for him will only increase the power of the Taliban and AQ. It  certainly  will not weaken it.   The US administration might find cooperation from the high level officers in the Pakistani army, but the big problem is that the vast majority of lower level officers and soldiers have sheltered hostility, and this is what explains Al-Qaeda and Taliban penetration in the Presidential Security and the three attempted assassination attempts against Musharaf.

Perhaps the failure of the war on terror will be seen in upcoming months for several reasons:  One has to do with the reemergence of Russia and a new Cold War after the Georgia fighting and Moscow’s desire to return to Afghanistan to get revenge against the Americans for kicking them out previously, and Al-Qaeda’s success in making a return to Afghanistan, and rejuvenated Mujaheed from around the world, and maybe see a return of them going to Europe and maybe even America, as Afghanistan is surrounded by countries who are hostile with America which is not the case with Iraq.

Al-Qaeda has returned to Aghanistan in light of its alliance with the Taliban, “after the the West became a mutal enemy of both movements. But the Taliban was not an enemy of America and the West before the events of 9/11.  There was a wing, and it was the dominant wing requesting that Al-Qaedabe kicked out of Afghanistan. Now all the wings are united behind Al-Qaeda  against Washington and the West.”  Here is the exact quote: 

 وعادت الى افغانستان بيئتها وحاضنتها الطبيعية، وفي ظل تحالف اقوى مع طالبان، بعد ان اصبح الغرب عدوا مشتركا للطرفين، فطالبان لم تكن تعادي امريكا والغرب قبل احداث الحادي عشر من ايلول (سبتمبر)، وكان هناك جناح وهو الغالب فيها يطالب بطرد القاعدة من البلاد، الآن توحدت الأجنحة خلف ‘القاعدة’ وضد واشنطن والغرب

The upcoming days for America are going ot be tough, it had a golden opportunity to win over Muslim hearts and minds who sympathized with them following 9/11. It could have used this to try and settle the Isr-Pal conflict and support democracy and human rights but unfortunately it did the opposite of this completely.  By doing what it did, it just provided more havens for terrorism.

Commentary
There are a number of points worth commenting on.  But for now I will simply return to my original argument- there is no reason that Taliban should be considered a natural enemy of the US.  They were not.  Lumping them together, when they could have sided with the US in kicking the  Al-Qaeda movement which was a threat to their local rule, was a major mistake.   The US had a golden opp that was blown, but I still see no reason why it couldn’t work.  Yes, it would entail admitting that seven years of effort was a complete waste, but it would probaly be more practical than staying and fighting the Taliban.

The Iraq Corner – September 2, 2008

Iraq’s Ministry of Interior is feeling pretty confident.  The general manager of operations told A-sharq al-Awsat that intelligence information gathered during recent arrests of suicide bombers (most famously the Iraqi teenager Rania) will enable MOI to permanently disrupt the network of suicide bombers in Diyala province.  He notes that AQ has turned to exploiting women and children and accuses AQI members of marrying teenage girls to gain control over them and force them to execute suicide attacks. 

After tensions between the Iraqi Army and its Kurdish population last week, ASAA reports that things have settled down in the mixed town of Khaniqin.   The Kurds have reached a peaceful agreement with Baghdad, things have returned to normal, and ASAA quotes individuals from Khaniqin’s various ethnicities as saying, at the most, that they support the inclusion of Khaniqin in the region of Kurdistan, and, at the least, that they do not oppose the inclusion of Khaniqin in the region of Kurdistan.  So it seems as though the most potentially destabilizing move would be for Baghdad to declare that Khaniqin was NOT part of Kurdistan. 

But while the situation on the ground has temporarily cleared up, the strategic picture remains muddled.  Comments made to ASAA by both Kurdish and Baghdadi parties demonstrate that the Kurds and Baghdad still have to come to terms on several major issues, such as 1)the legal rights of the Peshmerga* (ie what parts of Iraq they can deploy to) 2)the oil law and revenue sharing and 3)the status of Mosul (is it in Kurdistan or not?).  Granted, these issues will require lots of time to hash out, but the fact that the Iraqi government is not setting a timetable to settle these issues is discouraging.

On September 1, U.S. forces handed over security responsibilities in Anbar Province to the Iraqis.  Al Hayat reports a tense environment there.  Although AQ poses less of a threat then it once did, tensions exist between the Awakening Councils and the central government.  The Sunni political parties resent the Awakening Councils because AC members have started to engage in politics as well as security operations, a development that threatens the Sunni political parties.  The rest of Baghdad worries about the Awakening Councils because they are armed groups which exist outside the structure of the Iraqi government.  Members of the central government oppose absorbing the ACs into the Iraqi Security Forces because a)doing so would dilute the influence of factions currently holding power and 2)elements of the ACs have ties to Saddam’s regime. 

Ultimately, the central government won’t be able to stabilize Anbar without accomodating the Awakening Councils.  It would be near impossible.  The sooner Baghdad realizes this, the better the prospects are for sustainable calm in Anbar province. 

Last, while receiving The People’s Republic of China’s new ambassador, vice president Tariq Hashemi praised China’s decision to write off Iraq’s debt and called for stronger relations between the two countries.  According to as-Sabaah, Iraq is looking to attract investement in exploring and developing oil fields.