Iraq: The Coming Exit Strategy

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Iraq: The Coming Exit Strategy

The peace movement is struggling with success, as measured by public surveys favoring withdrawal alongside confusion about what’s next. The Democrats seem paralyzed by their anti-war past while hiding behind John Murtha. Meanwhile, events on the ground and assessments by US military commanders seem to be pushing the US down the path of an exit strategy, perhaps sooner rather than later.

It is nothing if not complicated. But the basic dynamics are these.

  1. the insurgents are winning the war strategically, or at least creating a long-term stalemate, with 80 percent of Iraqis favoring withdrawal.
  2. the US military is “broken”, according to Rep. Murtha. Recruiting prospects are dim.
  3. American public opinion, led partly by the peace movement, has hardened against the war at a more rapid pace than during Vietnam.
  4. the Bush Administration is mired in scandals not seen since Watergate.
  5. Republican politicians are distancing themselves from the White House.
  6. While not calling for withdrawal, Democratic politicians have resumed attacking the Administration’s Iraq policies.
  7. The “coalition of the willing” is becoming that of the dearly departed.

There are three options for the Administration. First, escalation to Syria and/or Iran, which seems doubtful if only because of the limited resources available. Second, a persistent quagmire lasting through 2006, roiling both Iraq and US politics. Third, an exit strategy including direct or indirect political negotions with the insurgents, de-escalation of the US presence in Sunni areas, and the beginning of military withdrawal.

The third option seems the most likely, if one can read through the false paradigms of the media. I almost lost my grip when the NY Times on December 15 described the Iraqi election as “participatory democracy.” That foolishness aside, the more important distortion is the Times’ description of the current election as a beginning to “draw ordinary Sunnis away from the insurgency and encourage them to support democracy.” [dec. 16] The truth is the opposite, that most supporters of the insurgency are adopting a dual, or two-track, strategy of both armed and political struggle [which Danny Morrison once described in Belfast as fighting with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot in the other]. This shift is made possible in part by a US concession that has been little reported, allowing elections to be district-based instead of nationwide – which assures Sunnis electoral victories in at least twenty percent of the newly-designed Iraqi parliamentary districts, and important minority numbers in many others.

If over one hundred members of the outgoing parliament signed a letter demanding the “departure of the occupation” last July, one can be sure that those anti-war numbers will rise after the new parliament is seated.

The relative peace during the current elections is a clear sign that the insurgency supports a large turnout in Sunni areas.

The Cairo conference of the Arab Summit last month supported resolutions calling for a near-term withdrawal and supporting nationalist resistance to the occupation. The US may not have been happy, but did not object.

That is because US military commanders and the US ambassador in Baghdad have opened lines of recognition and communication with the same nationalist resistance, speaking openly of such contacts since late November. [see Gareth Porter, IPS, Dec. 15 analysis]

They are doing so because the US war cannot be won, certainly not within the political and time restraints placed on the White House by the 80 percent of Iraqis who say they want the US to withdraw and the 52 percent of Americans who endorse the same message.

Once a new government is chosen, it will take up amendments to the earlier Iraqi constitution which froze the Sunnis out and empowered a sectarian war by the Shiite and Kurdish powers in the saddle, which only intensified the conflict and resulted in damaging reports of death squads and secret torture cells in Baghdad.

Those amendments will certainly seek a different course towards the opposition, attempting to co-opt or integrate as many as possible into a transitional arrangement allowing the US to begin substantial or complete withdrawals starting in the next few months and ending in 2007, ahead of the US presidential campaign.

What about the escalating and secret air war, and the obvious resurrection of the Vietnam-style Phoenix programs? Considered as escalation, they will fail to defeat the insurgency and leave the US without an exit strategy. Considered as insurgency-cleansing, they can be seen as policies designed to cripple or destroy as much of the insurgency base of support as the US decides to begin withdrawing.

What about the “foreign jihadists”? They will have little popular support when it appears that the US is planning to leave. Left with diminished support, they will be targeted by the “nationalist” resistance forces, US air power and special forces. In fact, US policy now is designed to turn the Sunnis and the “nationalist resistance” against the Zarqawis, as if the US occupation has favored its own dismantling all along.

The peace movement will inevitably plan large protests in March, the third anniversary of the 2003 invasion. In addition, the campaigns against military recruitment and, in selective races, against pro-war hawks and in favor of peace candidates will continue. Will the message be anything beyond “out now”, and how will the peace movement grow if the troops start coming home? MoveOn.org has joined the call for an exit strategy with a mailing to tens of thousands of its members, but the exit plan is not described. Rep. Lynn Woolsey held the first hearings on the exit strategy, then decided to drop the subject.

The Democrats seem unable to agree on anything beyond criticisms of the president, although nearly-all Senate Democrats and 134 House members [ten months ago] have called for a withdrawal timetable of one year to 18 months and all have applauded John Murtha but few than forty have co-authored his bill.

Both the peace movement and the Democrats have failed to define an exit strategy, leaving the initiative to the White House and the military commanders. Is it possible that Bush will erase memories of his 2003 invasion with images of withdrawn American troops being welcomed at the White House?

No one can say. The façade of “Iraqization” could collapse tomorrow with insurgent attacks on the Green Zone and mass defections from the Iraqi army. The sectarian civil war could heat up so intensely that political negotiations will be spurned. Restoration of Iraqi unity may be impossible, leaving a “three state” or “five state” solution to evolve.

But there is a peace opportunity now, through an exit strategy that negotiates an inclusion of most of the opposition in a reconstituted Iraqi government in exchange for a concrete promise of US military withdrawal and a renewed effort at economic reconstruction.

Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of 1960's peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

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