Where now in Iraq?

Hitherto on this blog, I’ve made little comment on the toppling of Saddam’s regime in Iraq and its aftermath, with the exception of this article. I started the blog some months after the regime was toppled (for the record I supported the toppling of Saddam’s regime), and from that point on until recently, I was content just to follow what was happening and read other commentary on the issue.

After the regime was toppled, I felt that having gone ahead and invaded, the US/UK and other coalition forces have a responsibility to the Iraqis to rebuild their country and put it on the road to democracy. I also believed that the worst thing that could happen would be for the coalition forces to withdraw prior to a stable government having been put in place and the security situation stabilised.

It seemed clear that leaving the country whilst the insurgents can still run riot and the fledgling Iraqi state is incapable of dealing with them effectively would be highly irresponsible. It would leave Iraq at the mercy of some of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty Islamist terrorists around, with a high risk of the country becoming a dangerous Islamic fundamentalist state, or descending into the sort of chaos we saw in post-Soviet Afghanistan. It would also effectively give the Islamist terrorists a victory against the West that would embolden them to carry out further attacks on Western targets.

After reading an article in today’s edition of The Times, I am less certain of this position. Simon Jenkins argues we should get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Whilst arguing for this, he made a point made that seemed to me quite valid and which he used to support the contention that the presence of coalition troops per se will make it impossible to deliver the security the Iraqis need. There is much in Jenkin’s article I disagree with, but on the following point I think he is close to spot on:

As long as British and American troops are in Iraq and the Allawi regime depends on them, Iraq is a magnet for every militia and suicide bomber in the Middle East.

I say Jenkins is “close to spot on” deliberately. It seems clear to me that a prime aim of the insurgents is to thwart the efforts of the coalition forces and the fledgling Iraqi administration to build a peaceful, democratic Iraq. There is furthermore the kudos they gain in various Arab and Islamist circles at taking on the “Great Satan”, i.e. the USA, on arguably its most important foreign policy issue. Therefore whilst the coalition troops are there, and whilst the US is still engaged in its project in Iraq, the place will be a magnet for these groups. It has thus become the primary military battleground in the conflict between the US/UK and the terrorists whom Bush declared war on after 9/11.

Jenkins’ point misses something though. Jenkins’ formulation implies that it is merely the presence of the coalition forces that draws the terrorist groups and militias into Iraq. I don’t deny their presence does this, but I don’t think the withdrawal of the forces will remove the motivations for the presence of the terrorists and other insurgents in Iraq. They want to defeat the whole project — the fledgling Iraqi regime is as much a target as the coalition troops are. The insurgents want their brand of Islamist or Ba’athist totalitarianism to replace the fledgling regime.

Nevertheless, I think it would be fair to say that the presence of coalition forces in Iraq will be a red rag to a bull for these groups and will thus draw them into Iraq, jeopardising the efforts to rebuild the country. Jenkins concludes if the troops remain, there will be no security in Iraq. I find it hard to see that he is wrong to conclude this, given that such groups will continue to exist for the forseeable future.

It also still seems to me that if the troops were to be withdrawn as Jenkins asks, it will further embolden the Islamists as it would be a victory for them over the US/UK. That would lead to further terrorist attacks against the West, and would strengthen the hold of Islamic fundamentalism across the middle east.

So what does all this mean for my position then? Note that I said I was less certain of my position than I was before reading Jenkins’ article. The point about the coalition presence itself being a magnet for the Islamist terrorists and militias seems to me quite valid and casts doubt on the idea that the coalition forces need to stay in Iraq in order to stabilise the country and prepare it for democracy, since their very presence draws in the groups that seek to destabilise Iraq in order to thwart that goal.

Thus, either the coalition troops withdraw, leaving the Iraqis at the mercy of the Islamists and emboldening those who’d attack the West, or we remain and fight the Islamists in Iraq itself for the foreseeable future. Under the latter option, if Jenkins is correct about the “magnet” theory as I think he is, only eradication of the Islamists would bring about the desired security, and that would require extending the conflict outside of Iraq.

However, under the former option, there seems little hope for security for the Iraqis either, and the conflict between the West and the Islamic fundamentalists will have shifted in favour of the latter (though the West would still be by far the more powerful party).

These are not good choices. My instinct is still to go for the troops remaining in Iraq and trying to help the Iraqis establish a peaceful democratic society as I suspect the other choice is worse. But it ain’t gonna be easy, and it seems more difficult now than ever. Am I missing a third choice?

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