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“As violence spreads in Iraq, politicians are right to change course. But abandoning the Iraqis should not be an option”, writes Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
Mr Rubin believes that the news from Baghdad is bad, but solutions being mooted in London and Washington are worse. “Withdrawal is the worst option: it would enable terrorism to flourish not only in Iraq, but around the world”, he writes.
“While many in Britain and Europe believe war in Iraq to be illegal”, says Mr Rubin, “they should not sacrifice ordinary Iraqis on the altar of anti-Americanism.”
Do you agree? Is withdrawal from Iraq the worst option? Should the coalition stay and attempt to improve the Iraqi police and eviscerate the militias?
Mr Rubin will answer your questions in a live Q&A today from 2.30pm GMT, 9.30 US eastern time. Post a question now to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the online submissions form below.
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When you state withdrawal is the worst option and it would enable terrorism to flourish, you suggest it is not presently flourishing. What is your evidence?
Michael Rubin: First of all, we have the precedents of what happened in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Somalia when the west created a vacuum. Second of all, take Fallujah: many in Britain urged the US to lift the 24-day siege of Fallujah in April 2004. But, in the 24 days after we lifted the siege and empowered the Baathists and insurgents to keep order, car bombings throughout Iraq increased 300 per cent.
It is trendy, especially in Britain, to blame all terrorism on either US policy in Iraq or the unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict. But, when you look at the Danish cartoon protests, the ongoing French riots - where the rioters are burning buses and chanting Islamist slogans - as well as the terrorism that declassified reports show the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was driving long before either the occupation of Iraq or the foundation of Israel, this suggests that the problem is not US or British policies, but rather an ideology shared by many of the Iraqi insurgents which is increasingly totalitarian in nature.
After the US led coalition decimated Iraq, is it not better for them to leave the Iraqis to sort out the mess themselves?
Raj Pillai, Trivandrum, India
Michael Rubin: The Iraqi politicians are working to sort out the country. The question is whether we will give Iraqis space to solve the problems politically or peacefully, or whether we want to leave Iraq to the best armed gangs.
It would be equivalent to saying that we should just let those in Kashmir fight things out, rather than allow there to be a real political process, not one predicated on rewarding violence and Pakistani-funded terrorism.
How exactly can things be worse in Iraq? I’m befuddled by any comment that states that to abandon Iraq would make Iraq worse. Are there different levels of civil war? Rated like maybe nachos? Hot to mild? If its burning its burning, why isn’t complete withdrawal on the table now?
Carl, Newark, US
Michael Rubin: First of all, perhaps you learn about Iraq from the television and, while television cameras do not lie, they do not always show the full perspective. If I had to judge Newark, New Jersey, from the television news coverage, for example, I might not have a sense that it differs much from Baghdad in terms of security.
But, to Iraq: dividing up the country would, at the very least, abet ethnic cleansing if not attempted genocide. The main problem in Iraq is now law-and-order, organised crime. We see the aftermath of terrorist attacks on television, but there are still huge swaths of the country not involved. What is the main driver of the lack of law-and-order? The militias.
Do you really think that abandoning Iraqis to armed gangs of thugs would make the situation better? And, sometimes, it’s important to listen to Iraqis. Polls suggest, for example, while the Iraqis want occupation to end, they do not want troops to leave until security is restored.
Many are now comparing the Iraq experience to the Vietnam war. It seems to me that a much more apt comparison would be to the Israeli experience in Lebanon after its 1982 invasion. Would you agree? For example, the Israelis facilitated the rise of Gemayel to power in Lebanon and repeatedly proclaimed that Lebanon would be a beacon of democracy for the Middle East. That failed miserably. Israel was forced to retreat from urban warfare in Beirut. Israel claimed that a fully equipped and trained South Lebanese army would secure the south of Lebanon. This was a mistake. Similarly, after several years numerous battalions deserted en masse in Iraq recently rather than be reassigned to the battle of Baghdad.
Matthew Dubuque, San Francisco, US
Michael Rubin: Well, certainly the unchecked presence of Iran is a similarity. And there is no doubt that the Iranians are trying to export the same model. All along, the US and the British have come up with elaborate plans in board rooms that have charted out how we and the Iraqis would get from point A to point B.
But this is not enough, we also need plans to shut down what our adversaries - in this case the Iranians - are doing. We should not sit down and let them replicate the Hizbollah model. What you should not assume, though, is that the militias enjoy such widespread popularity in Iraq.
Every poll that is done shows their unpopularity. And, even the UN election chief acknowledged, that political parties in Iraq have only a three percent favourability rating. Iran’s Arabic language al-Alam television bombards Iraq with images of and references to the US withdrawal from Beirut in 1983 which is perhaps another similarity. One of the greatest challenges we face is demonstrating the Iranian propaganda to be incorrect.
As to the broader parallel - don’t forget how many Iraqis came out to vote in their elections for a candidate whom I personally do not see as a friend. Maliki represents the majority Shia population, not a tiny segment of the population. Iraq is Iraq, Lebanon is Lebanon.
Your argument assumes that there is no better alternative investment in counterterrorist measures and it says nothing about improving the Iraqi economy. You want to improve the police force and dismantle the militias. What will the ex-militia members do? Go into concentration camps? Join unemployment lines? Flip burgers at McDonald’s on a US military base?
Peter Eggenberger, US
Michael Rubin: You are absolutely right that many militia members join the militias for a job. There have been studies done in the aftermath of the Bosnia war that found the internally-displaced persons, if not given employment, become fodder for recruitment.
Security is the key factor though in enabling employment. While it’s trendy to believe that a magic political formula exists to end the insurgency, it seems that every time we reward violence with concession we do not get reconciliation, but rather more violence. This is why we need a dual track, but one that cannot ignore the presence of the militias which, I’d argue, are the greatest impediment to economic reconstruction.
What would you have the US do to improve the Iraqi police and eviscerate the militias that we have not already tried?
Michael Rubin: The US has not embedded its personnel with the police as we have with the army. The police need to have constant supervision and on-the-job training. To turn a blind eye enables them to run rampant. To do this, we need to harden and better protect police stations as this tends to be the reason given why it is not yet safe enough to embed our forces with the police.
Do you believe that the Iranian regime’s influence in Iraq - through its various channels, both overt and covert - is the single greatest reason for the instability in the country? If not, what is? What should the US and its allies be doing about Iran’s meddling - leaving aside the nuclear and human rights issues, which require equal if not even more effort from the international community? Do you believe that a free and truly democratic system of government in Iran would bring stability to the region?
Noah Schwartz, London, UK
Michael Rubin: Yes, I do believe that the Iranian influence in Iraq is perhaps the single greatest impediment to stability and security in Iraq. Take the Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi militias. Both are trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and both are supplied in part by them.
Militias exist to impose through force of arms what they cannot not necessarily win through the ballot box. Even Iraqi Shias now complain about the Iranian influence. Iran is certainly an engine of instability in the region. The Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, for example, exists to export revolution. Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad is not a diplomat, but rather a member of the Qods Force.
What should the US and its allies do with regard to Iranian influence? Perhaps the greatest misjudgment the US made before entering Iraq was underestimating the psychological impact of occupation. Perhaps the greatest misjudgment the Iranians made was underestimating the psychological impact of Iraqi nationalism.
The US and Britain should not be afraid to play the Iraqi nationalist card. We should not be afraid to label the militias Iranian plants. Iraqis are already outraged that Badr Corps members and such have gone through the country and killed almost every Iraqi Air Force pilot who participated in the Iran-Iraq War and had not fled the country.
According to Paul Krugman in the IHT, the US is on the brink of defeat in two wars simultaneously: Imperial overstretch. Iraq is a fatal distraction and is unravelling by the day. Anti-Americanism is nothing new except it is now considered perfectly normal. Obviously there is some chance of success in Afghanistan. So why not concentrate of sorting out that primary source of terrorism? Iraq is one bridge too far and it has disappeared into a void created by the masters of illusion. The American voter will soon confirm that verdict.
Richard Bond, London, UK
Michael Rubin: I do not agree with the premise of your question. Krugman is more a politically partisan commentator and is certainly not someone who focuses on the details of what is going on.
I do not believe he went to either Iraq or Afghanistan before writing his column. In Afghanistan, we see the Taliban copying the tactics of Iraq. But abandoning Iraq and flooding Afghanistan with troops will not do the trick. It’s not just troop numbers but what they can do effectively.
And, while you may argue that Iraq is a fatal distraction, much of the intercepted communications from the Jihadists in Iraq are coming to the same conclusion about their own fight, which suggests that we might just be doing something right.
Bush claims Iraq to be the turning point of the war on terror - something he says the terrorists have grasped whereas the western community has not. According to Bush, were Iraq to be stabilised into a democratic nation, a process would quickly spread into the surrounding countries, which is the very reason why the terrorists are fighting so hard to maintain the carnage and chaos. How much of this theory is plain political propaganda, and how much is an accurate description of what is going on?
Erik Wetter, Lund, Sweden
Michael Rubin: I don’t think there’s any doubt that all of Iraq’s neighbors wanted us to succeed military and fail politically. And that democracy is a threat to all of Iraq’s neighbours with the exception of Turkey.
This is clear if not from private conversations with their policymakers than from their own newspaper commentaries. Al Qaeda and other isnurgent groups have disparaged democratic reform in their own propaganda which suggests that they really are afraid of it. When it comes to turning points, I tend to be disdainful of such declarations.
My academic background is in 19th century Middle Eastern histroy, and I’d argue that we only really recognise the turning points or watershed two or three years after they’ve happened.
I have two questions: If the number of coalition forces are not adequate to stabilise the country now, where do you think we can find the seasoned divisions to secure the country until the Iraqi army is up to it? And given the lack of success of any foreign invaders in keeping Mesopotamia under control, what advice (beyond stay the course and hope for the best) would you give the Iraqis themselves as to how to proceed?
Bob Patterson, US
Michael Rubin: Good questions. With regard to the first question, the issues are sustainability and how troops are used. We can increase troops - although not forever. But numbers alone aren’t the issue. This is why I would argue - after travelling to Iraq several times and talking to US troops and Iraqis - that we need to embed troops with the police as the mechanism to increase security or, at least, disrupt the mechanism of insecurity.
With regard to the second question: I don’t really accept the historical determinism. With almost every conflict be in Desert Storm in 1991, overthrow of the Taliban a decade later, or in Iraq now, people have argued that past history shows the impossibility of success. But sometimes success proves them wrong.
What advice would I give to the Iraqis? Most Iraqis are determined to move forward, but we tend to have given many fence-sitters doubt about whether to stick their necks out because of all our talk of abandonment. But, I do believe we need to counteract some of the Iraqi tendency to blame everything on outsiders and remind them, it’s not hidden hands setting off bombs, and it is not the Americans causing the terrorism, but rather Iraqis themselves.
Is there any progress being made towards building an Iraqi army of integrated Shia-Sunni-Kurd units with commanders who are loyal to the national government? Do the commanders and troops take an oath of loyalty to the Iraqi nation? Does PM Maliki reach out to develop a personal relationship and bond with his army commanders? Do these units currently take orders from him or are they under the effective control of coalition forces?
Anthony G. Freeman, Bethesda, US
Michael Rubin: Yes, there is progress when it comes to creating a new Iraqi army, but there’s a long way to go.
Iraq is a country where patronage matters, and there will always be the question of loyalties to ethnic, sectarian, or tribal groups, so the key is getting enough checks and balances to keep this under control. With the army, there is a sense of loyalty to the Iraqi nation (and an oath as well) and the reason why I don’t believe there is yet full-scale civil war is that the mixed army units haven’t divided up and turned on themselves yet.
That said, the interior ministry (police) forces and the intelligence services are out of control. The former tend to be a refuge for Shia death squads and the latter for Sunni death squads. That is why I believe that any solution has to address these problems head on rather than creating a vacuum by withdrawal.
Now, with regard to the command structure: The army units take command through the Iraqi Defence Ministry hierarchy from the defence minister who, in theory, takes command from prime minister Maliki. In practice, though, the Iraqi cabinet structure isn’t such where in practice the clear chain of command works as it does in the US or Britain.
Too many cabinet members act independently of the government. Also, while we often talk about training and combat readiness of the Iraqi army, logistics are another matter. Can they get from point A to point B by themselves? Too often, the answer there is no, which is why the coalition is still working with them.
Do you think the main reason the US is in Iraq is to control the oil? Which country do you think the US is concerned about getting control of the oil in the middle East?
Joe Shogren, Seattle, US
Michael Rubin: No, I don’t. The US has spent more money in Iraq than they could ever have hoped to get from oil. And while many people say this war was for oil or, for that matter, against Muslims, the fact of the matter is that the US has intervened in Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo, all of which have large Muslim populations and none of which have oil.
While the only options discussed publicly are stay the course and withdrawal, no one appears to be discussing the possibility of using the United Nations as a mediating or pacifying force. Why not?
Peter Vince, Florida, US
Michael Rubin: Excellent question. There are a few reasons why the UN is not under serious consideration. Firstly, the UN specialises in peace keeping once there is a ceasefire, but it is neither militarily capable nor politically willing to be a pacifying force.
Secondly, the UN has a rather troubled history in Iraq. When terrorists blew up the UN headquarters in Iraq back in 2003, Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered the withdrawal of much of the UN presence. Unfortunately, this sent the signal to extremists that, if they did not like the way UN negotiations were going, they need only kill a few UN officials and that the UN did not have staying power.
Perhaps most importantly, while many in Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin see the UN as legitimate, many Iraqis have a different take. They see the UN through the lens not only of sanctions and the oil-for-food corruption, but many Iraqi Kurds and Shias remember the UN’s silence in 1988 and 1991 when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein conducted mass killings, and so are unwilling to trust the UN now.
Was Paul Wolfowitz correct when he stated that the supposed existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD was merely a rationale for the invasion of Iraq that was decided on for bureaucratic reasons and that the real reason for the war was that Iraq was floating on a sea of oil? If Wolfowitz made a false statement about administration policy, why did Bush promote him to president of the World Bank? If his statement was true, why not begin any discussion about Iraq’s future by admitting that the war was about oil and empire, not security or democracy, and moving on from there?
Roger Algase, New York, US
Michael Rubin: I’m sorry, but the snippet of conversation you cite is both taken out of context and the section about oil outright false. We may be in the heat of an election system, but accuracy matters.
It’s important not to take statements out of context. There were a multitude of reasons of why the US administration believed the war in Iraq to be necessary. They involved the very real belief that Saddam had WMD, that he sponsored terrorism, abused his own people, and abetted genocide against the Kurds.
Perhaps there was frustration that the press did not consider every issue and so the Bush administration focused Colin Powell’s UN speech on a single issue. But, if you look at the full text of any State, Pentgaon, or White House speech in the original - and they are all online at the respective websites - you may find the facts and the conspiracies do not match.
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