Nir Rosen has a piece in the December Atlantic Monthly entitled “If America Left Iraq: The case for cutting and running.” Rosen poses the following questions and answers them all himself:
Would the withdrawal of U.S. troops ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites?
No. That civil war is already under way—in large part because of the American presence. The longer the United States stays, the more it fuels Sunni hostility toward Shiite “collaborators.” Were America not in Iraq, Sunni leaders could negotiate and participate without fear that they themselves would be branded traitors and collaborators by their constituents. Sunni leaders have said this in official public statements; leaders of the resistance have told me the same thing in private.
Wouldn’t a U.S. withdrawal embolden the insurgency?
No. If the occupation were to end, so, too, would the insurgency. After all, what the resistance movement has been resisting is the occupation. Who would the insurgents fight if the enemy left? When I asked Sunni Arab fighters and the clerics who support them why they were fighting, they all gave me the same one-word answer: intiqaam—revenge. Revenge for the destruction of their homes, for the shame they felt when Americans forced them to the ground and stepped on them, for the killing of their friends and relatives by U.S. soldiers either in combat or during raids.
But what about the foreign jihadi element of the resistance? Wouldn’t it be empowered by a U.S. withdrawal?
The foreign jihadi element—commanded by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is numerically insignificant; the bulk of the resistance has no connection to al-Qaeda or its offshoots. (Zarqawi and his followers have benefited greatly from U.S. propaganda blaming him for all attacks in Iraq, because he is now seen by Arabs around the world as more powerful than he is; we have been his best recruiting tool.)
What about the Kurds? Won’t they secede if the United States leaves?
Yes, but that’s going to happen anyway. All Iraqi Kurds want an independent Kurdistan. They do not feel Iraqi. They’ve effectively had more than a decade of autonomy, thanks to the UN-imposed no-fly zone; they want nothing to do with the chaos that is Iraq. Kurdish independence is inevitable—and positive. (Few peoples on earth deserve a state more than the Kurds.)
Would Turkey invade in response to a Kurdish secession?
For the moment Turkey is more concerned with EU membership than with Iraq’s Kurds—who in any event have expressed no ambitions to expand into Turkey. Iraq’s Kurds speak a dialect different from Turkey’s, and, in fact, have a history of animosity toward Turkish Kurds. Besides, Turkey, as a member of NATO, would be reluctant to attack in defiance of the United States. Turkey would be satisfied with guarantees that it would have continued access to Kurdish oil and trade and that Iraqi Kurds would not incite rebellion in Turkey.
Would Iran effectively take over Iraq?
No. Iraqis are fiercely nationalist—even the country’s Shiites resent Iranian meddling. (It is true that some Iraqi Shiites view Iran as an ally, because many of their leaders found safe haven there when exiled by Saddam—but thousands of other Iraqi Shiites experienced years of misery as prisoners of war in Iran.) Even in southeastern towns near the border I encountered only hostility toward Iran.
What about the goal of creating a secular democracy in Iraq that respects the rights of women and non-Muslims?
Give it up. It’s not going to happen. Apart from the Kurds, who revel in their secularism, Iraqis overwhelmingly seek a Muslim state.
The British occupation of Iraq, in the first half of the twentieth century, may be instructive. The British faced several uprisings and coups. The Iraqi government, then as now, was unable to suppress the rebels on its own and relied on the occupying military. In 1958, when the government the British helped install finally fell, those who had collaborated with them could find no popular support; some, including the former prime minister Nuri Said, were murdered and mutilated. Said had once been a respected figure, but he became tainted by his collaboration with the British. That year, when revolutionary officers overthrew the government, Said disguised himself as a woman and tried to escape. He was discovered, shot in the head, and buried. The next day a mob dug up his corpse and dragged it through the street—an act that would be repeated so often in Iraq that it earned its own word: sahil. With the British-sponsored government gone, both Sunni and Shiite Arabs embraced the Iraqi identity. The Kurds still resent the British perfidy that made them part of Iraq.
What can the United States do to repair Iraq?
There is no panacea. Iraq is a destroyed and fissiparous country. Iranians and Saudis I’ve spoken to worry that it might be impossible to keep Iraq from disintegrating. But they agree that the best hope of avoiding this scenario is if the United States leaves; perhaps then Iraqi nationalism will keep at least the Arabs united. The sooner America withdraws and allows Iraqis to assume control of their own country, the better the chances that Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari won’t face sahil. It may be decades before Iraq recovers from the current maelstrom. By then its borders may be different, its vaunted secularism a distant relic. But a continued U.S. occupation can only get in the way.
OK, some convincing arguments. But it is a bit arrogant to act like he has a crystal ball. And his claim that al-Qaeda is an insignificant part of the insurgency is contradicted by the recent New York Times analysis which found it to be the largest part—while recognizing that individual cells act more or less autonomously. His minimization of fears of Iranian influence ignores that one of the leading Shi’ite factions is the pro-Iran Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. And his minimization of fears of Turkish intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan ignores the actual Turkish sabre-rattling of recent months. Finally his acceptance of the inevitability of a fundamentalist state comes across as cynical. It’s a little ironic that he invokes the 1958 revolution in support of this argument—which was, for all its extremism, a secular nationalist revolution. More to the point, it ignores the actual existence of a secular left opposition in contemporary Iraq. While we agree that the longer the US stays the worse it will be, just washing our hands like Pilate after our government’s blundering intervention has unleashed the jihadis on Iraq is insufficient. We—meaning the anti-war forces in the US—owe Iraq’s secular left opposition vigorous solidarity.