Rather than "cutting and running" from Iraq or "staying the course" until the Iraqis are capable of handling their own security, there is a credible alternative for U.S. military retrenchment and exit. It will reduce U.S. troop levels and casualties and Iraqi civilian deaths, without plunging Iraq into full-scale civil war or making it a magnet and a haven for terrorists.
Most of the violence and casualties occur in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle where the U.S. confronts a coalition of Baathist-Sunni and foreign al-Qaeda fighters and terrorists, and where a low-level Sunni-Shia civil war is already in progress. Kurdistan and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces are cohesive and internally stable.
In the Iraqi constitution approved by a large majority of their voters last month, Kurdish and Shia leaders agreed to a federal state in which their two regions will be self-governing and responsible for their own internal security, but will share some central government functions such as revenue sharing from oil, foreign policy and defense against external enemies. Under their live-and-let-live deal, the southern region could have Islamic law (Sharia) and Kurdistan secular law.
Most of the Sunni leaders and parties have opposed this constitutional deal, don't want other Iraqis and the U.S. to impose a government on them and are demanding an end to U.S. occupation.
The U.S. should oblige the Sunni on both counts. The U.S. and the Iraqi government would end the occupation of the Sunni provinces (Sunni Triangle) and parts of Baghdad by withdrawing U.S. troops and redeploying them into defensive positions on the borders of Kurdistan and the southern region with the Sunni areas, and within Baghdad. They would announce that it is up to Sunnis to decide their own government and institutions, as they deem fit, without outsider interference.
Once the Sunnis have formed the government of their choice, they can negotiate the final contours of an Iraqi state with the other two regional entities. The incentives for the Sunnis to cut a deal are strong, since the other two regions have most of the oil. Meanwhile, U.S. forces will protect Kurdistan, the south and the non-Sunni parts of Baghdad from Sunni, foreign fighter and other aggression. We will also have to deploy some troops on the Jordanian border to protect Jordan from attack.
There will be immediate consequences.
What are some objections to the credible alternative?
The Bush administration contends that without a military victory, Iraq will become an al-Qaeda terrorist haven. But the Sunni Triangle is already such a magnet, haven and training ground for terrorists. Should the U.S. ever achieve military victory, the terrorists will not wait around to be captured. They will escape through porous borders, the same way they came. The Baathist-Sunnis are not likely to accept domination by al-Qaeda and foreign fighters. More likely their opportunistic alliance against the U.S. and the Iraqi government will fall apart.
The administration fears that U.S. withdrawal will plunge Iraq into full-fledged civil war. In a worst-case scenario, there will be a bloody armed struggle for power in the Sunni areas we vacate, and the winner could well be a Baath-like regime headed by a military strongman. Yet there is already chaos and violence there on a large scale, and "staying the course" has fed them, not reduced them. By retrenching, only the Sunni Triangle is at risk of civil war and dictatorship, and not the rest of Iraq. Our defensive deployment prevents the chaos from spreading to the rest of Iraq.
This essay first appeared in the (Raleigh) News & Observer on 25 November 2005.