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Costs of Iraq failure

BY HENRY A KISSINGER / 9 December 2005

SINCE every turning point occurs in some finite time period, a key test of policymaking is when to schedule the seminal decisions. The debate over withdrawal from Iraq hinges on such a question.

The administration and its critics seem to agree that the beginning of American withdrawal will mark a turning point. Unresolved is the speed and extent of the drawdown and whether it should be driven by a fixed timetable or by a strategy seeking to shape events.

Though often put into technical terms, the issue is not the mechanics of withdrawal. Rather the debate should be over consequences — whether, in the end, withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat or as an aspect of a prudent and carefully planned move on behalf of international security. Whatever one’s view of the decision to undertake the Iraq war, the method by which it was entered, or the strategy by which it was conducted —and I supported the original decision — one must be clear about the consequences of failure. If, when we go, we leave nothing behind but a failed state and chaos, the consequences will be disastrous for the region and for America’s position in the world.

For the jihad phenomenon is more than the sum of individual terrorist acts extending from Bali through Jakarta, to New Delhi, Tunisia, Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca, Madrid and London. It is an ideological outpouring comparable to the early days of Islam by which Islam’s radical wing seeks to sweep away secularism, pluralistic values and Western institutions wherever Muslims live. Its dynamism is fuelled by the conviction that the designated victims are on the decline and lacking the will to resist. Any event that seems to confirm these convictions compounds the revolutionary dynamism.

If a fundamentalist regime is installed in Baghdad or in any of the other major cities, such as Mosul or Basra, if terrorists secure substantial territory for training and sanctuaries, or if chaos and civil war mark the end of the American intervention, jihadists would gain momentum wherever there are significant Muslim populations or non-fundamentalist Muslim governments. No country within reach of jihad would be spared the consequences of the resulting upheavals sparked by the many individual centres of fanaticism that make up the jihad.

Defeat would shrivel American credibility around the world. Our leadership and the respect accorded to our views on other regional issues from Palestine to Iran would be weakened; the confidence of other major countries — China, Russia, Europe, Japan — in America’s potential contribution would be diminished. The respite from military efforts would be brief before even vaster crises descend on us. Critics must face the fact that a disastrous outcome is defined by the global consequences, not domestic rhetoric. Similarly, the administration will ultimately be judged by results, not plans.

President Bush has put forward a plausible strategy. It acknowledges that mistakes have been made and affirms that policy has been leavened by experience. But the crescendo of demands for a fixed timetable suppresses the quality of patience that history teaches is the prerequisite for overcoming guerrilla warfare. Even an appropriate strategy can be vitiated by being executed in a too precipitate manner.

The views of critics and administration spokesmen converge on the proposition that as Iraqi units are trained, they should replace American forces — hence the controversy over which Iraqi units are in what state of readiness. But strategy based on substituting Iraqi for American troops may result in confirming an unsatisfactory stalemate. Even assuming that the training proceeds as scheduled and produces units the equivalent of the American forces being replaced — a highly dubious proposition — I would question the premise that American reductions should be in a linear relationship to Iraqi training. A design for simply maintaining the present unsatisfactory security situation runs the risk of confirming the adage that guerrillas win if they do not lose.

The better view is that the first fully trained Iraqi units should be seen as increments to coalition forces and not replacements, making possible accelerated offensive operations aimed at the guerrilla infrastructure. Such a strategy would help remedy the shortage of ground forces, which has slowed anti-guerilla operations throughout the occupation. While seemingly more time-consuming, it would in fact present better opportunities for stabilising the country and hence provide a more reliable exit route. The actual combat performance of new units cannot be measured by training criteria alone. The ultimate metrics — to use Pentagon jargon — is to what extent they are motivated toward ultimate political goals. What they fight for will importantly determine how well they will fight.

A responsible exit strategy can only emerge from a subtle interplay of political and security elements — above all, the consolidation of a national government. Real progress requires that the Iraqi armed forces view themselves — and are seen by the population — as defenders of the national interests, not sectarian or regional ones. They will have become a national force when they are able to carry the fight into Sunni areas and grow willing to disarm militias, especially in the Shia regions from which the majority of them are recruited.

To delegate to military commanders the ultimate judgments as to the timing of withdrawals therefore places too great a burden on them. Their views regarding security need to be blended with judgments regarding the political and collateral consequences that a major new initiative inevitably produces. Such a balance presupposes that all sides in our domestic debate adopt a restraint imposed on us by the consequences of failure.

For the decision to start withdrawals will have a profound psychological impact, the most immediate of which will be on the Iraqi political structure. Will the initial reductions — set to begin sometime after the December election — be viewed as the first step of an inexorable process to rapid and complete withdrawal or as a stage of an agreed process dependent on tangible and definable political and security progress? If the former, the political factions in Iraq will manoeuvre to protect their immediate assets in preparation for the coming test of strength that will seem to them inevitable between the various groups.

The incentive to consider American preferences for a secular and inclusive government in a unified Iraq will shrink. It will be difficult to broaden the base of a government at the very moment it thinks it is losing its key military support. In these circumstances, even a limited withdrawal not formally geared to a fixed timetable and designed to placate American public opinion can acquire an irreversible character.

If the experience of Vietnam is any guide, the numbers of returning troops could in such an atmosphere turn into the principal domestic test of successful US policy. Pressures to continue or accelerate the withdrawals could magnify so that the relationship to the political criteria of progress will be lost. A process driven by technical or domestic criteria may evoke a competition between various Iraqi factions to achieve nationalist credit for accelerating the US withdrawal, perhaps by turning on us either politically or with some of their militia.

The United States intervened in Iraq to protect the security of the region and its own. But it cannot conclude that process without anchoring it in some international consensus. Geopolitical realities will not disappear from a region that has lived with them and suffered from them for millennia and that has drawn American military forces into their vortex into Lebanon in the 1950s and 1980s, into Afghanistan in 2001, into the Gulf in 1991 and 2003, and caused two American military alerts: over the Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970 and the Arab-Israeli war in 1973.

The passions, convictions and rivalries of the factions in Iraq will continue. A regional system will emerge in one form or another through our interaction with these forces or through our default. In that sense, America can never withdraw politically; only its military presence may vary. It will always have to meld political and security objectives.

The countries relevant to Iraq’s security and stability, or which consider their security and stability affected by the emerging arrangements, must be given a sense of participation in the next stage of Iraq policy. The developing political institutions in Iraq need to be built into an international and regional system — not out of obeisance to a theoretical multilateralism but because otherwise America would have to function alone as the permanent policeman, a role any foreseeable Iraqi government is likely to reject in the long run and which the very debate discussed in this article makes impossible.

The time has come not only to define the sense of our future in Iraq but also to broaden the base of political consultation in the region at large. A political contact group including key European allies, India (because of its Muslim population), Pakistan, Turkey and some neighbours of Iraq should be convoked after the Iraqi election. Political discussions between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and Iranian authorities regarding Iraq have already been authorised. These cannot be the sole contacts with Baghdad’s neighbours. The functions of the contact group would be to advise on the political evolution of Iraq; to broaden the basis of legitimacy of the government; and to reflect a broad international interest in the stability and progress of the region. As time goes on, the group could become a forum to deal with other issues affecting Middle East stability, including some of the root causes of Islamic radicalism. A political framework is not a substitute for a successful military outcome, but military success cannot be long sustained without it.

Henry A Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State and veteran policy wonk, played a key role in formulating US foreign policy during and after the Cold War


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