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The Withdrawal Follies
Posted on Jul 26, 2007
As a corollary, the more the present seems out of control, the stronger the urge to plant a flag in the future. In the case of Iraq, where control is almost completely lacking, we see this in a major way. When General Petraeus first arrived to oversee the surge, he and his commanders spoke cautiously about the future, but as their desperation has grown, their comments have become increasingly bold and their claims to predictive powers have expanded accordingly.
Just the other day, General Walter Gaskins, in charge of U.S. forces in al-Anbar Province, even appropriated a predictive phrase whose dangers are well known. He said: “There’s still a lot of work left to do in Al Anbar [Province]. Al Qaeda in Iraq is still trying to make its presence felt, but I believe we have turned the corner.” He added that “another couple of years” would nonetheless be needed to get the local Iraqi forces up to speed. “Although we are making progress, I will always caution and always say that you cannot buy, nor can you fast forward experience.”
When it comes to withdrawal, however, the military commanders have been doing just that—“fast-forwarding experience”—and reporting back to the rest of us on the results. Recently, for instance, Karen DeYoung and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reviewed a host of elaborate Iraq war games conducted for the Pentagon, including one which found that “if US combat forces are withdrawn”—note that those are only the “combat brigades,” not all U.S. forces—Iraq would be partitioned, Sunnis driven from ethnically mixed areas in and around Baghdad into al-Anbar Province, and “Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups.”
These days, along with such grim military predictions go hair-raising suggestions about what even a partial U.S. withdrawal under pressure might entail. Here’s a typical comment attributed by DeYoung and Ricks to an “officer who has served in Iraq”: “[T]here is going to be an outbreak of violence when we leave that makes the [current] instability look like a church picnic.”
This is already coin of the realm for an administration which, until well into 2006, refused to admit that major sectarian violence existed in Iraq, no less that the country was headed for civil-war levels of it. That changed in a major way this year. Now, the administration has embraced sectarian violence as the future American critics are hustling it toward and is flogging that future for all it’s worth.
Early in July, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker began to issue grim warnings about just such a future, should the U.S. withdraw. As the New York Times reported, “[T]he U.S. ambassador and the Iraqi foreign minister are warning that the departure of American troops could lead to sharply increased violence, the deaths of thousands of people and a regional conflict that could draw in Iraq’s neighbors.”
Ever since, such predictions have only ramped up. In his July 12 press conference, President Bush quickly picked up on the ambassador’s predictions, heightened them further, and wove together many of the themes that would thereafter come out of Iraq as the “advice” of his commanders. He said:
“I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.”
A version of this (lacking the al-Qaeda twist) quickly became part of what passes for common wisdom among experts and pundits in this country—as in the Michael Duffy story that went with the TIME withdrawal cover. Should we draw-down, no less withdraw, precipitously, the result, suggested Duffy, is likely to be violence at levels impossible to calculate but conceivably just short of genocidal. As Marine Corps commander James Conway put it recently in words similar to the President’s, “My concern is if we prematurely move, we’re going to be going back.”
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