Quitting Iraq is not a strategy

THE announcement of Italy, Japan and Britain to withdraw their troops from Iraq has reopened the debate in the United States about whether or not the withdrawal of its troops could change the course of the current crisis in Iraq.

By Nicole Stracke

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Published: Thu 6 Jul 2006, 10:10 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:43 PM

American politicians and public are sharply divided on the issue of troop withdrawal. Senator John Kerry, Democrat presidential candidate in 2004, has called on the US Senate to support his proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq in six months and sought a diplomatic solution to civil war-threatened Iraq. On the contrary, Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton has ruled out the option for a quick troop withdrawal emphasising the need for "smart US strategy", though she did not specify what it means.

Perhaps the real need of the hour is for the US administration to formulate a new ‘smart’ strategy toward the Middle East, including beginning to act as the leader it claims to be. Such leadership skills could include being more responsible, flexible and willing to delegate difficult tasks.

Four years ago, Washington took a unilateral decision and opted for military action against Iraq. Now, the US leadership and people have to be responsible for the consequences of their decision. This includes not applying a "cut and run" strategy as suggested by Senator Kerry just because the situation is becoming tougher for American soldiers, which is proving to be politically inconvenient now.

Continuing to stay in Iraq is among the least damaging alternatives. A US troop withdrawal would signal to the world that Washington has failed in its mission to achieve stability and democracy in Iraq as promised by the administration as part of the Bush doctrine formulated in September 2002. Troop withdrawal would be construed as a public defeat for the US and will contribute to weakening its influence in the region. Given the current critical situation in the Gulf region —the "war against terrorism" and the Iranian crisis over its nuclear programme in particular —it is not advisable, and even risky, for the US to appear weak.

The worldwide criticism of the US conduct in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay has made it obvious that the US has lost its credibility as the "guardian" of human rights and democratic values. But the US has not lost its credibility as a power broker, as well as military and security guarantor in the region. This is reinforced in Iran repeatedly asking for direct talks with the US, as well as in the continuing bilateral military cooperation between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the US. A US troop withdrawal at this point could damage the US image as a nation capable of securing and defending its allies in the region. That could play into the hands of the US opponents worldwide, particularly Iran and strengthen Teheran’s current stand on nuclear enrichment. At the same time, an American withdrawal would also contribute to an increasing Iranian role in Iraq.

Iran is already supporting its favourite groups to enhance its influence in Iraq. If the Americans were to leave, the field would be open for Iranian hardliners to push radical pro-Iranian groups to influence Iraq through various states institutions —among them the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq or militia groups such as the Badr Brigade, which could receive financial and military support.

A US withdrawal from Iraq would leave the new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki without any protection. Currently, the American security forces form a buffer between the radical militias and the Iraqi government. An American withdrawal would create a power vacuum and leave the field open for radical militias. Besides, the current Iraqi security institutions are fragile. The Iraqi intelligence is weak and lacks manpower, the military and police are politicized, fragmented, demoralised and corrupt. The military and police are so deeply involved in the political struggle that they are unable to enforce law and order without American support. The withdrawal of US troops at this point would increase the possibility of a sectarian strife among the various radical Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militias.

Given these factors, the US does not have any other option, but take responsibility, stay in Iraq and find a solution. This directly leads to the second and third leadership skills: flexibility and willingness to delegate tasks.

The Bush doctrine, which is the official guideline for the US policy in Iraq and aimed at spreading democracy and US domination, needs revision. So far, the ambitious vision of the US administration to bring stability through democracy to Iraq has failed, and any other US initiative in the near future will meet with resistance in the region. What next then? The US needs to be flexible and change its current course and focus more on stabilisation rather than democratisation.

The US assumption that democracy would lead to stability in the country does not hold good in the case of Iraq. In the long term, however, more stability may lead to an environment where Iraqi people could practice self governance and also begin to develop a ‘democratic’ political culture. Thus, security is the key and the main prerequisite for any further development towards democratisation —however defined by Iraqis, and not according to Western standards. But, in order to attain security and prevent a civil war in Iraq, the country needs to have strong centralised governmental institutions, with a strong intelligence network, as well as chaste army and police force.

A small but first step in the right direction has been achieved by electing an Iraqi government. The next and simultaneous step should be to stabilise the Iraqi security forces, depoliticise the Iraqi military and police, and restructure the Iraqi national intelligence under Director-General Muhammad Al-Shahwani. The current situation of daily killings, bomb and suicide attacks, and dysfunctional institutions proves that the US is incapable of fulfilling all the tasks on its own.

Hence, the US should internationalise the drive to achieve stability by encouraging partnership with others, such as the EU or Russia in the process of rebuilding the Iraqi armed forces. Several EU states —for example, Germany —have already heeded the Iraqi government’s request last year to cooperate, and provided training for high-ranking Iraqi police officials. In several cases, however, the US either interfered or even blocked various initiatives taken by its allies on hard security issues in order to preserve US domination and control.

The US has to change its current course if it does not want the Iraqi mission to end in an Iraqi ‘trauma’. At this point, the US is neither in a position to withdraw its troops nor solve the crisis alone. If it claims to be the leader it should act as one. Perhaps, it should start by admitting its mistakes.

Nicole Stracke is associated with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai

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