Defeat Without Disaster
The least bad plan for leaving Iraq.
Peter Galbraith's article in the current New York Review of Books, "Iraq: The Way to Go," is one of the most bracing essays written on the subject lately—a provocative but logical case for a U.S. withdrawal (though not a total withdrawal) that still manages to achieve a few of the war's original goals.
I don't agree with every plank of Galbraith's proposal (more on that later), but anyone seeking a solution to this disaster needs at least to contend with his arguments.
Back in the spring of 2004, when Galbraith first proposed splitting Iraq into a loose federation of three ethnic enclaves, I criticized the idea. He did have a point. "Iraq" was an artifice from its outset, the product of a scheme to widen the British Empire in the wake of the First World War. When the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, it also imploded the artifice of a unified Iraqi nation, and there was no way to put the monster back together. It would be better, Galbraith argued, to let the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds govern themselves in autonomous regions, with a central authority doing little more than equitably distributing oil revenue.
At the time, and a few times since, I expressed serious problems with Galbraith's plan. First, Iraq's ethnic divisions were not clear-cut geographically: Many cities, notably Baghdad and Kirkuk, had mixed populations. Where should the ethno-regional lines be drawn? Second, since the central authority would be weak by design, it wouldn't have the power to make, much less enforce, decisions on divvying up revenue. Third, the plan would have the effect of creating three "weak states," which would likely spawn civil wars and possibly a regional conflagration, as the neighbors felt tempted or compelled to fill the power vacuums.
My objections remain, but the context has changed. Amputation seems a terrible idea when one's limbs are still flexing. It's a bit more palatable when the alternative is death, and, in Iraq, the gangrene is spreading.
"The Iraq war is lost," Galbraith starkly declares in his new article. "Defeat," he continues, "is defined by America's failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place."
He has now abandoned his plan for a partitioned federation, regarding the southern two-thirds of Iraq—the areas dominated by Shiite and Sunni Arabs—as hopeless. Instead, he calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from those areas and redeploying some of them to the northern sector, in order to protect the Kurds.
Galbraith has long been a consultant to the Kurds and, long before that, a passionate advocate for their cause. Still, an objective case can be made that the United States has a moral and strategic interest in Kurdish independence. Redeploying troops to the Kurdistan region accomplishes four goals, Galbraith argues. It "secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western." It deters "a potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish war." It "provides U.S. forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaida in adjacent Sunni territories." And it limits "Iran's increasing domination."
All of these goals are worth pursuing; they are worth some sacrifice; finally, unlike other goals of this war, they are achievable.
And yet, the plan leaves out one thing—the people in the rest of Iraq.
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 a U.S. soldier on Slate's home page by Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images.