Bing West on Withdrawal from Iraq

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[Flag of al Qaeda in Iraq]

Francis J. “Bing” West is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and U.S. Marine. He has written numerous articles on the Iraq war for a variety of publications including The Atlantic and Small Wars Journal, and has visited the country 13 times since 2003. Excerpts from Mr. West’s testimony before the Committtee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives courtesy of Small Wars Journal:

The President and the Congress agree about the desirability of a withdrawal of US forces; the issue is under what conditions. It makes a vast difference to our self-esteem as a nation, to our reputation around the world and to the morale of our enemies whether we say we are withdrawing because the Iraqi forces have improved or because we have given up.

That issue towers above any discussion of tactics, logistics diplomacy or even timing…[I]inside Iraq, the Jesh al Mahdi extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) must be destroyed, not placated.

Separate from AQI, though, there are a dozen other Iraqi insurgent groups. At the local level, there have been productive negotiations with the tribes, undoubtedly including some of these insurgents. These bottom-up understandings, focused against AQI, occurred because military action changed the calculus of the tribes about who was going to win. Successful negotiations flowed from battlefield success, not the other way around.

In Anbar, our commander, Major General Walt Gaskin, believes we have turned the corner, with weekly incidents dropping from 428 in July of ’06 to 98 in July of ’07. In Baghdad and its outskirts, that’s exactly what General Petraeus intends to do with his surge strategy – bring security to the local level and break the cycle of violence.

America is divided between two schools of thought about Iraq. The first school – let’s call them the Anti-Terror Camp – identifies the jihadists as the main enemy. General Petraeus has said that “Iraq is the central front of al Qaeda’s global campaign.” AQI is “public enemy number one” because it slaughters thousands of innocent Shiites in order to provoke a civil war. CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden believes that a US failure in Iraq will result “in a safe haven (for al Qaeda) from which then to plan and conduct attacks against the West”…The Anti-Terror Camp believes that fracturing AQI and the Jesh al Mahdi death squads will set the conditions that enable US withdrawal, leaving Iraqi forces to enforce reasonable stability, albeit with continued violence. Based on my observations in a half dozen Sunni cities and in Baghdad over the years, I subscribe to the Anti-Terror Camp.

The Sectarian Camp, on the other hand, believes Iraq is being torn apart by religion, not terrorism. Removing the terrorists will not remove the root cause of the violence. An intransigent hostility between the Shiites and Sunnis will lead inevitably to a full civil war and sweeping ethnic cleansings – regardless of the current surge. So we should get out, because the situation is hopeless.

It is problematic whether the sectarian conflict has metastasized into the body polity, and the top levels of the Iraqi government have certainly performed poorly. But if we declare we’re leaving on that account, chaos will ensue. When President Thieu in 1975 pulled back just one division, the whole country erupted in panic. If we pull out because we say the Iraqi government has failed, Prime Minister Maliki will pull back and retrench his forces. When he does, the potential for panic flashing across the country in a few days is real.

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