The Enemy of My Enemy
How Sunni insurgents can help us.
(Few dispute this argument. The leading Democratic proposals for a troop withdrawal explicitly allow a certain, though unspecified, number of U.S. troops to stay for a few missions—training Iraqi security forces, providing logistics and intelligence, protecting U.S. personnel, and, above all, tracking down terrorists.)
So let's focus on that mission. Most Iraqi insurgents have no interest in al-Qaida's aims—by and large, they oppose its ideology—but some have cooperated with the jihadists in order to advance their common interest of defeating the American occupation. We should be doing everything possible to give the insurgents a reason—to make it in their interest—to cooperate with us, in order to advance the common interest of pre-emptively defeating a possible occupation by al-Qaida.
We're doing this already in Anbar. Are we maneuvering to do it in other provinces with other insurgencies? It's unclear. I hope so. Iraq is not going to be a Western, secular democracy. It's not going to be a country that embraces any of those three words, at least not anytime soon—and not likely as a result of the surge. Let's try at least to avoid the compounding disaster of handing al-Qaida a victory.
Now here comes the cold-blooded part. These deals with the lesser devils may require a commitment from us to get out of Iraq by a certain date. At minimum, they will probably require a commitment to abandon the counterinsurgency campaign. And this, in turn, probably means abandoning the Iraqi people to the ravages of a civil war far bloodier than they've endured thus far—in part because the deals will have strengthened the sectarian warlords with whom we will have been dealing.
If Bush and his officials go this route, and if their consciences ache a little at its consequences, they should start now to pave a smoother path. There are a few ways to do this.
First, let more fleeing Iraqis enter the United States, and give special attention to those who have worked for the U.S. military and embassy—as translators, drivers, informers, or whatever—and who, as a result, face certain death once we withdraw. It is a disgrace that the town of Sodertalje, Sweden—population 60,000—took in twice as many Iraqi refugees last year as the number taken in by the entire United States. (Sweden as a whole took in 20,000; the United States 7,000.)
Second, inside Iraq, Sunni Arabs living in Shiite areas and Shiites living in Sunni areas might be encouraged to move. The U.S. and Iraqi troops currently engaged in counterinsurgency might be redirected to protect these citizens as they move and to help set them up in new areas. That way, if and when a civil war erupts, the opportunities for "ethnic cleansing" will have been, at least to some extent, pre-empted.
Third, set up a diplomatic conference of all the neighboring countries, immediately—if not to settle the political conflict in Iraq (a near-impossible task), then at least to keep the conflict from spreading and to ameliorate its human toll.
For instance, a refugee crisis is gripping the region. Food prices are skyrocketing in Syria as a result of the 1.4 million Iraqis who have fled across its border, with another 30,000 entering each month. About 750,000 refugees are in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt, 200,000 in the Gulf States. If those countries' governments weren't so keen to meddle into Iraq's trouble before, they might be roused to do so now.
The basic fact, which nearly everyone at this point recognizes, is that we're leaving—not right away, but likely sometime before Iraq settles into the league of stable, civilized nations. The aim now should be to minimize the disaster, to keep our biggest enemies from claiming victory, to redeem something from this dreadful war.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Iraqi militants by STR/AP Photo.