ENDING THE U.S. WAR IN IRAQ : How to Bring the Troops Home and Internationalize the Peace

Institute for Policy Studies — January 12, 2005

Thursday 13 January 2005, by Erik LEAVER, Phyllis BENNIS

"There is an old military doctrine called the First Rule of Holes: If you find yourself stuck in one, stop digging."

— the late Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, US Navy (Ret.)

Those who advocate “staying the course” or “internationalizing the war” are too busy digging deeper. A real solution to the Iraq War must start with ending the U.S. occupation. Then, and only then, we can talk about internationalizing the peace.

But this raises serious questions. How should the occupation end and the peace be internationalized? Even if the war is wrong, will it make things worse if the U.S. pulls out? Having invaded and occupied Iraq , what are our responsibilities to the Iraqi people? How can the chances for civil war be minimized? Bennis and Leaver offer steps that follow progressive principles while offering realistic steps to help put the U.S. back on the side of the rule of law, and gives the people of Iraq the best chance of rebuilding their devastated country and moving towards peace, justice and security.

The U.S. in Iraq : Two Years of War

The Iraq War has, like the Vietnam War of a generation ago, sorely divided the people of the United States . The invasion, occupation and continuing war have brought about the death of over 1,300 young women and men serving in the U.S. military. Over 10,000 have been seriously injured. Thousands are returning home with grievous mental and emotional damage. Civil rights, particularly those of Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans, have been shredded. The $151 billion in U.S. tax dollars spent on the war, not to mention the $100 billion more Congress will soon be asked to allocate, has wrought havoc on the economy and dramatically escalated the deficit.

Iraqis have suffered far more. Their country has been shattered by military assaults, and continues to languish under a violent occupation and brutal war. Cities such as Fallujah have been virtually destroyed by U.S. military forces claiming to “liberate” the now-deserted city of 300,000. The ruin of Fallujah, and so much of Iraq , by U.S. forces recalls the words of the great writer Tacitus, who followed Rome ’s legionnaires as they laid waste to the empire’s far-flung cities. “The Romans brought devastation,” he wrote, “and they called it peace.”

Despite the June 2004 so-called “transfer of authority” to the Iraqi interim government, the U.S. military occupation and political representatives remain in control of Iraq’s people, economy, social and political systems. According to U.S. researchers, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have perished as a result of the occupation and war. The British-based Iraqi Body Count has confirmed 15,000 - 17,400 specific civilian deaths caused by military violence. The January 30 elections, if they take place, will not change these realities.

Fighting a war launched in defiance of the United Nations and in violation of international law as well as the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. and coalition forces are engaged in a pattern of lawlessness that violates both U.S. and international law. U.S. officials and many Americans brag of the U.S. being a great democracy, living under the rule of law with a government accountable to the will of its people. If that is true, citizens are liable for the U.S. government’s actions.

Around the world the vast majority of people and governments stand opposed to this war. In the U.S. , a majority of people, and increasing numbers of political and military leaders, believe the war was wrong from the beginning or is not worth the price. But many are uncertain what to do. Even if the war is wrong, will it make things worse if the U.S. pulls out? Having invaded and occupied Iraq , what are our responsibilities to the Iraqi people?

Ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq is the only solution to this escalating crisis

Ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq means bringing the U.S. troops home. All of them. Immediately. U.S. troops are the primary cause of the violence in Iraq and not the solution to the violence. The nearly 150,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq should be out of the country and on their way home by July 4, 2005 - allowing Iraq to celebrate its own independence.

The Iraqi resistance has grown larger, stronger and more popular in the last two years in response to the U.S. invasion and occupation. In November 2003 the Pentagon estimated that there were about 5,000 Iraqi resistance fighters. By December 2004 the Iraqi “interim government” estimated that the number had grown to approximately 40,000 active military forces and 200,000 supporters in the resistance.

The continuing presence of the U.S. troops has strengthened, not weakened, the resistance. Resistance attacks are killing far more Iraqi civilians than U.S. troops, but the target of almost all the attacks remains institutions and individuals associated with - and thus viewed as collaborating with - the U.S. occupation forces. They include police officers, other security forces, officials of the U.S.-backed interim government, translators, and civilian employees of the U.S. and "coalition" militaries.

With the withdrawal of the occupation forces and the resulting end of the Iraqi structures supporting them, the major target for resistance attacks will disappear. The current deployments in Iraq include 150,000 U.S. troops, about 30,000 “coalition” troops from often reluctant U.S. allies, and 20,000 U.S. military contractors. The pattern is clear: adding more troops sparks greater resistance, not less.

Just as the resistance and U.S. troop levels have increased, so has the casualty toll. In the first three months following last June’s so-called “hand-over” of authority to the U.S.-installed interim Iraqi government, the number of U.S. military casualties skyrocketed, from 449 to 747 each month. And Iraqi civilians continue to die in huge numbers. Johns Hopkins University researchers published a study in the British medical journal The Lancet indicating that by October 2004 more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the war and occupation.

The dynamics of the fighting between the resistance and the U.S. , and the horrific human costs that are being unleashed, are unlikely to change in the near term. Both parts of the Bush administration’s two-pronged plan, staging elections and putting Iraqis in charge of their own security, are failing because of the occupation.

Peace activists in the U.S. and around the world support elections as one component of democratization. But not every election is legitimate or democratic. An election cannot be legitimate when it is conducted under foreign military occupation and during war. As currently planned, the January 30 elections in Iraq are designed to provide a veneer of credibility and legitimacy to the continuation of U.S. control of Iraq . The U.S. hopes they will lead to the election of a U.S.-friendly government that will welcome U.S. military bases in Iraq , all legitimized through the drafting of a U.S.-style constitution.

Certainly Iraqis need to be in charge of their own security. But that can only happen in a truly sovereign nation. U.S. officials dismantled the existing security forces on May 17, 2003 , soon after invading Iraq . But the Iraqi police and military forces the U.S. is trying to create have failed to provide security for the Iraqi people and the situation appears to be only worsening. Iraq ’s security forces are fighting in a war that puts anyone who is physically near or associated with the U.S. occupation at greatest risk. At the same time, soldiers and police officers lack adequate training. One measure of the problem can be seen in their death toll. Over 1,500 Iraqi security force recruits and 750 Iraqi police officers have been killed. U.S.-sponsored Iraqi security forces cannot succeed as long as the U.S. is leading a war on the ground in Iraq .

Iraqi history provides some useful lessons. The British ruled Iraq , officially, under a League of Nations mandate from 1922 until 1932, and unofficially through pro-British generals and the monarchy from 1932 until the 1958 revolution. Their emphasis was on controlling Iraq ’s oil through a strong, pro-British military. The resulting primacy of the military within Iraqi society helped set the political stage for the ascendancy of the Iraqi Ba’ath party and eventually that of Saddam Hussein. Making a priority out of building up Iraq ’s military and police capacity may look attractive at the moment, but in the longer term it may signal new problems.

As with any guerrilla war, the Iraqi resistance is unlikely to be defeated by military means. Political and diplomatic solutions must be the key components to change the terrible situation Iraqis are in today.

What will happen when the U.S. troops are withdrawn?

No one can say with certainty what will happen when U.S. troops leave. But if the Administration continues to “Stay the Course” U.S. troops will continue to die and they will continue to kill. Iraq ’s reconstruction will remain stalled. Any election held under conditions of foreign military occupation and any resulting Iraqi "government" will remain illegitimate. Regional governments will stay paralyzed. And the country’s overall situation will remain dire.

While there is no absolute certainty about all the consequences of full withdrawal, likely developments can be anticipated. The resistance is multi-faceted. It includes an amalgam of Iraqi nationalists, democratic and otherwise, outraged by the illegal foreign occupation of their country. Some are disgruntled former Ba’athists. Others are Iraqi Islamists, both Shia and Sunni, holding a range of religious views who see fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq as both a national and religious obligation. And some are foreign fighters, allied with some Iraqis, apparently mostly extreme fundamentalist Islamists, who see an opportunity to transform Iraq into part of an Islamic caliphate.

To the extent that the resistance is unified at all among its disparate ethnic, religious and political sectors, the unity appears limited to shared opposition to the U.S. occupation. Without the occupation as an outside enemy, those much smaller sectors of the resistance that are motivated largely by religious extremism and who are responsible for some of the worst violence against civilians, will likely become isolated from the broader sectors of the resistance. One probable result will be a significant reduction - though not an immediate end - of violence, with the departure of the key targets of the violence, the U.S. occupation and its Iraqi supporters.

It is likely that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to the collapse of at least some parts of the current U.S.-imposed "government" of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, but some of its institutions, including the police, the military and other security agencies, could well survive with different people, untainted by association with the U.S. occupation, emerging from within them to assert new leadership. And without an outside enemy occupying the country, it is also more likely that the kind of secular nationalism long dominant in Iraq would again prevail as the most influential (though certainly not sole) political force in the emerging Iraqi polity, as opposed to the virulent Islamist tendencies currently on the rise among Iraqis facing the desperation of occupation, repression and growing impoverishment.

A Plan for Withdrawal: Policy Directions for the U.S.

In the period between the announcement of a date certain for troop withdrawal and the completion of the actual withdrawal:

Full Story


Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in Washington , D.C. Erik Leaver is the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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