The strong possibility that Pentagon commanders will recommend the beginning of American troop withdrawals this week is vanishing, derailed by the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra as well as the Democratic Party's default on the war.
The British press has been more forthright in reporting troop withdrawal plans since last September's peace rallies. Just a month ago [Feb. 2] the London Times announced an "acceleration" of plans by Britain and America for pulling out one-third of their troops this year. On March 5, the Telegraph's defense correspondent followed up by reporting that "all" British and American troops will be withdrawn in the next 12 months. Two days later, the British commander in Iraq withdrew the withdrawal hints, saying instead that a pullout of most troops might be "reasonable" by summer 2008. [NYT, Mar. 8, 06]. The New York Times says that the "widely expected" announcement of US troop cuts now was "muted."[nyt, Mar. 2, 06]
The stated reason, or pretext, for suspending the withdrawal plan was the bombing of the Shiite shrine and several days of sectarian bloodletting at the end of February. The US ambassador delivered the message "just before key US decisions are expected on whether the situation in Iraq has improved enough to allow for a reduction in US forces this year", the LA Times reported.[mar 7, 06]
We may never know who blew up the mosque and, with it, the prospects for troop withdrawals. It is assumed that the villains were either deranged Sunnis acting on their own, or al-Zarqawi cadres intent on civil war.
There is another perspective for close observers of dirty wars, the possibility that the bombing was planned and handled by elements of Western counter-terrorism forces. Similar tactics were employed by British agents during the long conflict in Northern Ireland, and heavily-armed British commandos disguised as Arabs were captured in Basra just last year. One of the oldest imperial strategems is to divide and conquer, incite sectarian divisions, and justify military occupation to keep the natives from killing each other. This is precisely the justification for continued war that is heard from those who have admitted the original invasion was a "mistake."
Bernard Lewis, the leading American "Arabist" authority, himself a former British intelligence officer in the Middle East, and later an advisor to the Democratic hawk Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, has long defended the strategy of dismembering Arab states through violent sectarianism. He calls it "Lebanonization." A decade ago, as the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein was underway, Lewis wrote about Arab states that
if the central power is sufficiently weakened, there is no real civil society to hold the polity together, no real sense of common identity...the state then
disintegrates - as happened in Lebanon - into a chaos of squabbling, feuding, fighting sects, tribes, regions and critics. [Foreign Affairs, fall 1992]
A former director-general of Israel's foreign ministry, Shlomo Avineri, has expressed similar views more diplomatically. In an op-ed piece titled "Israel could live with a fractured, failed Iraq", he wrote
an Iraq split into three semi-autonomous mini-states, or an Iraq in civil war, means that the kind of threat posed by [saddam] Hussein...is unlikely to rise again. [LA Times, Dec. 4, 05]
The default of the national Democrats, who seemed poised to oppose the war when Rep. John Murtha called for a six-month pullout in December, is about the refusal of leaders to put rank-and-file Democrats first in their thinking. Instead, Democratic consultants obsess for political reasons on erasing any image of "weakness" left over from the days when Democrats at least stood for something. More deeply, those who aspire to the presidency begin to worry personally about weakening the nation's status as a superpower. Internal divisions among Democratic Party elites, such as the Democratic lobby for Israel, play an unspoken role too. For all these reasons, as a top Democratic "source" explains,
"there will not be a unified position on Iraq...there's a recognition, pragmatically, that [unity] ain't there, it hasn't been there, and isn't going to be there." [Roll Call, Feb. 21, 2006]
The tragedy is that key Democrats at the Center for American Progress [CAP], headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, have been promoting a careful but realistic withdrawal plan since last fall, code-named "Strategic Redeployment" to avoid any posture of retreat. The tone is like a hawk's guide to withdrawal, but substantively it calls for the withdrawal ["drawdown"] of 80,000 US troops this year, beginning as soon as a new regime is installed in Baghdad. The 2006 withdrawals would include all National Guard and Reserve troops. The second phase, beginning in January 2007, would remove the nearly all other troops in the next 12 months, leaving unspecified counter-terrorist units, military advisers, and 14,000 troops re-positioned to Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. The document is strikingly similar to what some commanders have been advising Murtha and others from behind the scenes. The principal author is Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official under Ronald Reagan.
On the Iraqi side, there also is a proposed withdrawal plan that generally fits the contours of the American "strategic redeployment" proposal. According to reliable sources in Amman, the author is Dr. Khair-eddin Haseeb, a former governor of Iraq in the Sixties. The core provisions of the draft, titled "Iraqi National Initiative to End Occupation of Iraq Unconditionally, Reflecting the Will and View of the Iraqi National Resistance and Other Major Political Forces Opposing Occupation", are these:
an American declaration of intention to full withdrawal in six months;
a cease-fire by the insurgents during the American withdrawal;
a United Nations-authorized transitional government, pending internationally-supervised elections;
a peacekeeping force composed of countries not involved in the present occupation;
US and UK commitments to compensation in the range of $70 billion US.
permission for US-based contractors to bid on reconstruction contracts.
This document suggests a Sunni nationalist agenda, and will require further dialogue, but it is Arab nationalism, mainly Sunni but also Shiite, that the US is fighting on the battlefield. In addition, according to recent surveys, 45 percent percent of all Iraqis support armed resistance against occupation, while seventy percent support a timetable for withdrawal between six months and two years. If Sunnis constitute only twenty percent of the population, then the demands of the peace proposal must be supported far beyond the so-called Sunni Triangle, though one would never be aware of this from reading the American press.
The "Iraqi National Initiative to End Occupation" document also proves that political negotiations are possible, and have been possible for some while, despite claims by the war camp that there is no "other side" to negotiate with. Negotiating is a process, sometimes indirect, not necessarily representatives sitting down at one table. There is growing evidence that the Iraqi resistance, leaving aside the al-Zarqawi elements, has signficant capacity to coordinate its operations without being represented through a political organization or party. They observed a several-day cease-fire in observance of the recent elections. More recently, "the activities of the resistance are at a halt, now until we have a new government...that's the information we have from the resistance", said one tribal source. [LA Times, Feb. 10, 06].
When the political negotiations stalled and bombs went off in Samarra, it was Iraqi religious, military and political forces, not American troops, that restored considerable calm in comparison to the initial counter-attacks. It is at least conceivable that social violence could be minimized and contained during an American pullout, rather than the specter of a post-occupation bloodbath that justifies the perpetual war.
The situation is unpredictable. No one knows at this point what the generals will tell President Bush behind closed doors. When and if the new Iraqi government is established, the issue of troop withdrawals will return, since several of the winning political parties campaigned on a promise to set a withdrawal date. One source tells me that "perhaps they would encourage American withdrawal from the quiescent Kurdish north - though the Kurds would not like to see them go. It seems unlikely that the reduction would reach 40,000 this year. Ten thousand seems the more likely figure, but that is conjecture." [private communication]
All this is somewhat disorienting for an American peace movement built around the core demand of "out now". But the movement continues to make a major contribution, here and abroad, in putting pressure against the key pillars of power. Public opinion supports withdrawal. Thousands of activists continue taking to the streets. Hawkish candidates face huge pressure as they face their constituents. Bush may be facing his "Watergate moment." Military recruiting is nearing a catastrophic dead-end, and a decision to deploy, rather than reduce, several Army combat brigades will "destroy the all-volunteer Army", in the words of the CAP report. The "coalition of the willing" has a sagging façade. Establishment heavyweights, not to mention ordinary taxpayers and their congressional representatives, are pondering the trillion-dollar cost of the war recently projected by leading economist Joseph Stiglitz and a team at Harvard.
Anything may happen still. An exit strategy is at hand. But the US policy is to have no exit. For now it appears that the long war will continue to the bitter end.