When America Withdraws from Iraq? What Then?

About an year ago, in our article, Iraq & Tibet – Strategic will of The American and Chinese People, we wrote We believe that a long American military presence in Iraq is absolutely critical to American Interests and for the Global Economy. This presence and its pressure will eventually create change in Iran, accelerate the current positive trends in the UAE, Kuwait and might even influence Saudi society. If we are wrong and it does not, then the military presence in Iraq will prove to be even more critical.”

America’s presence in Iraq did create change in both Lebanon and Iran. In Lebanon, the change was for the better. In Iran so far, the change has been bad for the protesters who have been suppressed with brutal force by the Iranian regime.

The American people have indicated that they do have the strategic will to stay in Iraq for the long term, but it looks like the new American President does not. According to Tom Friedman, Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of Iraqi leaders that “on the current withdrawal plan, coalition forces will not be here in 18 months.”

We think this will prove to be an enormous mistake and one that America will regret for decades. Below we describe why we think so. 

To begin with, it is time for America to admit publicly that America’s involvement in Iraq has been a stunning success, both for Iraq and for America. This is not just our opinion, but that of old critics of the Iraq involvement like Tom Friedman.

Read what Mr. Friedman wrote this week in his New York Times article:

  • “Senior Iraqi officials are too proud to ask for our help and would probably publicly resist it, but privately Iraqis will tell you that they want it and need it. We are the only trusted player here — even by those who hate us.(emphasis ours)
  • We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.”
  • “I am amazed in talking to U.S. Army officers here as to how much they’ve learned from and about Iraqis. It has taken way too long, but our soldiers understand this place.”
Now this is as far as a former critic of the Iraq involvement and a journalist can go in admitting his past mistake. But it is far enough.

Friedman’s most important comment is his last
After we invaded and stabilized Bosnia, we didn’t just toss their competing factions the keys. President Bill Clinton organized the Dayton peace talks and Richard Holbrooke brokered a deal that has lasted to this day. Why are we not doing in Iraq what we did in Bosnia— when the outcome here is 100 times more important?

Friedman is absolutely right. Iraq remains an uneasy mosaic of religious and ethnic groups. These groups remained quiescent during the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein. These groups learned to coexist peacefully during the American control of Iraq. There is a grave risk that these groups will begin fighting each other after American forces leave. If that happens, everything American achieved in Iraq will be lost. America will be accused of running away like it did in Afghanistan in 1989. American prestige and influence in the Middle East will be seriously damaged and so will any chance of a middle east peace.

Friedman is asking for a strong American diplomatic initiative to create a deal that each group in Iraq can live with. He argues that without intense US pressure, such a deal will not happen. He is also right in saying that Iraq is 100 times more important than Bosnia. That is why he asks “Why are not doing in Iraq what we did in Bosnia?”

Our goal is to not ask why but to paint a picture of what could happen without such a deal.

Fortunately, Iraq provided an answer on June 28, 2009 and Washington Post reported it on July 16, 2009 in its article
Kurdish Leaders Warn Of Strains With Maliki Military Conflict a Possibility, One Says.

The Kurdish population of Iraq is an ethnic group that is distinct from the rest of Arabic Iraq.  The Kurdish region of Iraq has been classified as an autonomous region of Iraq with its own Prime Minister, Nachirvan Barzani. The area has been patrolled by Kurdish militiamen who are nominally under the control of the Iraqi Arab Army but in reality give their loyalty to the Kurdish regional government.

Below are excerpts from the Washington Post article that describe the June 28 incident and its importance.

  • for months, U.S. officials have warned that the ethnic conflict pitting Kurds against Arabs, or more precisely the Kurdish regional government against Maliki’s federal government in Baghdad, poses the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability and could persist for years.
  • In an incident June 28 that underscored the trouble, Kurdish residents and militiamen loyal to the Kurdish regional government faced off with an Arab-led Iraqi army unit approaching Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between the troubled northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Kurds believed the unit was trying to enter the town, and for 24 hours, Kurdish leaders, Iraqi officials in Baghdad and the U.S. military negotiated until the Arab-led Iraqi unit was diverted, the Kurdish prime minister said.
  • They sent huge forces to be stationed there to control a disputed area, and our message was clear: We will not allow you to do so,” the Kurdish prime minister said.
  • “Everything is frozen,” said Prime Minister Barzani, a nephew of the president. “Nothing is moving.” He warned that the deadlock was untenable. “If the problems are not solved and we’re not sitting down together, then the risk of military confrontation will emerge,” he said.
  • Prime Minister Barzani saw the incident as more provocation than misunderstanding. He insisted that Iraqi army commanders were still imbued with a “military-style mentality of being the Big Brother to impose their will.”
  • He warned that the Iraqi army was biding its time until it became stronger, perhaps with tanks from the United States.
  • “Then what do you expect from us?” he asked. “We just sit down and wait to see it?” Asked whether the pesh merga had tanks, too, he replied, “Oh, yes. Yes, we do.”

A battle between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds is bad enough but that is minor compared to the wider war that could draw in Turkey and Iran. 

(Irbil is the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region)              (Kurdistan – Highlighted area- source wikipedia)

The Kurdish areas of Iraq are a part of the larger Kurdish region called “Kurdistan” the “Stan” or place of the Kurds. As the map (above right) points out, Kurdistan encompasses a part of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Kurdish rebels are fighting for an independent Kurdistan in both Turkey and Iran. Both Turkey and Iran are vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdistan and will go to war to prevent it.

So, it is very likely that a battle between Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs will be construed by Turkey as the initial battle for Kurdistan and if so, Turkey will intervene militarily. It is also likely that Iran would send its own army to intervene. In this case, the battle might widen to include Sunni Iraqis and Shia Iraqis and create a very real possibility of Iraq being partitioned with Turkey controlling Sunni Iraq and Iran controlling Shia Iraq.

Turkey and Iran have been empires through out history and these countries are proud of their status as past empires. These past empires often went to war against each other. Both Turkey and Iran have visions of restoring their past glories. Turkey is of course much more advanced in its capabilities and ambitions.

Remember that it was Turkey who accused China of “genocide” during China’s recent crackdown of Uighur protesters in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China. The Uighurs are pan-Turkic people, as are the people of Turkmenistan, the “Stan” or the place of Turkmen. Look at the above map of Kurdistan. Turkmenistan is to the northeast of Azerbaijan (province north of Iran) and across the Caspian sea. Xinjiang is east of Turkmenistan and far away from Turkey. 

If Turkey is willing to take on China for a couple of hundred Uighurs in remote Xinjiang, does any one doubt that Turkey will react violently in Kurdistan, its immediate neighbor? We do not. This is why we believe that the Kurdish-Arab conflict in Iraq has enormous geopolitical consequences for the entire region.

Then, of course, you have the age old struggle for supremacy between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, a potential conflict that is likely to draw in Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

The American military presence in Iraq prevents all of this from happening. Remember, now it is not a forced presence. But, as Tom Friedman wrote, American troops are the most trusted group in Iraq, trusted by every single other group.

Does that mean that America should play nurse-maid to Iraq for eternity? No, of course not. But does it mean that American troops should be withdrawn in 18 months as Admiral Mullen stated. Absolutely not.

Remember American troops have been in Korea for 60 years. If American troops can stay in Korea for so long, why can’t American troops stay in Iraq for another 10 years?

They can and they must in our opinion. If President Obama pulls American troops out of Iraq in 18 months, he might be committing a grave mistake, a mistake that America will regret for decades. But eighteen months is a long time and we hope that reason will prevail by then.

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