As the calls for US withdrawal from Iraq grow ever louder, both boosters and opponents of American disengagement are kept up at night by a common fear: that the departure of American troops will eliminate the one thing standing in the way of Iraq's descent into chaos and slaughter of a magnitude that could make the last few years look calm by comparison.
Some Iraqi politicians argue passionately that as bad as things are in their country, they would be far worse without the Americans on patrol.
Even those who want the US military out acknowledge grave risks to the human rights, security and welfare of the Iraqi population after withdrawal. Presidential candidate John Edwards is among the most outspoken in the 2008 race about the need for pullback on a tight timetable, but he too calls for a "plan" to prevent genocide after the US goes.
The prospect of even wider ethnic killings, terrorist attacks, and abuses of civilians by militias and insurgents is of grave concern no matter where you sit. For the Bush Administration and other proponents of the war, the idea that the Iraq adventure could end in mass slaughter is the ultimate indictment of their flawed policies. For opponents of the war who decry the bloodshed and disruption that it has caused, a stance that culminates in untrammeled civilian killings and human rights abuses is unconscionable.
For those mindful of international norms, a deterioration in conditions in Iraq would implicate the UN's newly-minted "responsibility to protect" a global doctrine that mandates that the world not stand by in the face of genocide or mass atrocities that a national government is unwilling or unable to stop. For Arab opinion-leaders and publics who protested the invasion and occupation of Iraq, concerns for both the wellbeing of the Iraqi people and the stability of the wider region are implicated. Given the growing inevitability of US (and UK) withdrawal, what are the realistic prospects for preventing an onslaught on civilians? At least six possibilities are on the table, none of them close to satisfactory:
- First is the notion, seeming to become more far-fetched by the day, that the Iraqi armed forces will take control of their country, protect the public, and tamp down the militias. But Iraq's security forces are infiltrated with sectarian partisans and still heavily dependent on the US. If the Administration thought they could forestall chaos without US involvement, withdrawal would have happened already.
- A second avenue is the proposal of a negotiated partition of Iraq to provide for a peaceful divide along sectarian lines, preempting more violent ethnic cleansing. But the mechanics of partition are complex and contested, and a majority of Iraqis polled say they oppose the concept. The Iraqi population is residentially integrated in many areas, meaning that partition would require mass dislocations and loss of livelihoods and property. The idea that political momentum will materialize to shepherd through detailed agreements and large scale population transfers necessary to effectuate partition is far-fetched. So is the notion that the US will somehow effectuate partition without the negotiated participation of Iraq's population groups.
- A third scenario is that sufficient residual US troops (numbering in the low tens of thousands) remain in Iraq to forestall large-scale abuses of civilians. But, depending on the size and mandate of the presence, this could flys in the face of the idea that one factor fueling the insurgency is the very presence of US troops. It also seems implausible given the inability of a much larger force to get Iraq under control.
- A fourth possibility is that so-called safe havens and civilian corridors can be created such that even if out-and-out civil war erupts, the innocent can be temporarily protected and humanitarian aid provided. It is true that large swaths of Iraqi territory remain peaceful and that some civilians might willingly go to such areas. But it is unclear how so-called safe areas would actually be protected if they came under attack and, even if they were safe, such corridors could represent a path toward ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Shiite areas.
- A fifth scenario is that US troops withdraw "over the horizon" either to Kuwait or to offshore vessels so that they are poised to reenter in the event that conditions sharply deteriorate. This is frankly absurd: once American troops exit Iraq, they aren't coming back, particularly if the terrible conditions and hopelessness that prompted their withdrawal have gotten even worse. Their ability to stop ethnic cleansing from afar is almost certainly nil.
- A sixth scenario is that an international presence in some way takes over where the US leaves off, assuming responsibility for protecting the civilian population and trying to curb the violence. US Ambassador to the UN (and former envoy to Baghdad) Zalmay Khalilzad is pushing for greater UN involvement, and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said the organization won't shy away from this role. But the idea that the UN, with its limited resources, finite mandates, comparatively miniscule firepower, and cobbled together troops can succeed where the US has failed seems remote.
While none of these measures, in itself, averts the potential for genocide, elements of several could be combined into a strategy to at least lessen the likelihood that US withdrawal leads to catastrophe. The training of Iraqi troops should place primary emphasize civilian protection and upholding of human rights irrespective of sectarian and ethnic lines. While wholesale partition of Iraq is probably infeasible, the potential should be explored to support the peaceful voluntary separation of populations already underway in some areas to foster stability and lessen the danger of violence.
As many proponents of withdrawal acknowledge, some residual force remaining in Iraq to continue to train troops, root out terrorists and hopefully deter violence might be in both American and Iraqi interests. The tiny UN presence in Iraq, if expanded under the right conditions, may be able to draw on the organization's humanitarian and human rights expertise to monitor and deter violations, as well as aid needy victims.
This kind of multifaceted approach needs to be formalized into a clear strategy laying out the role that the Iraqi military and the US will play in protecting Iraqi's population in a withdrawal scenario. If that doesn't happen, the after-effects of the US's exit from Iraq could wind up being even worse than the consequences of its entry.