Troops out, slowly

by Henry Farrell on November 1, 2006

Via “Marc Lynch”:, some “Congressional testimony”: (PDF) by Jim Fearon applying lessons from other civil wars to the Iraq conflict. Fearon suggests that the prospects for Iraq are pretty dreadful – civil wars tend to go on for a long time, and are usually resolved when one side or another gains a decisive military victory (less than one in six ends in a power-sharing arrangement). The reasons for this are rooted in the strategic situation that actors find themselves in – both sides in a civil war are organized so as to fear that the other side will try to grab power, and both are likely to be tempted to try to grab power for themselves. Given this, the least-worst strategy for the US to follow is to withdraw troops gradually, seeking to prevent major massacres of civilians while it does this, but recognizing that a Lebanon-type civil war is highly likely to break out when it does withdraw completely. This is a pretty bleak assessment, but I’m not seeing very many countervailing reasons for optimism.



dearieme 11.01.06 at 1:08 pm

I expected this from the beginning. Didn’t you?


Steve LaBonne 11.01.06 at 2:01 pm

The notion that slow withdrawal will accomplish anything for anyone, other than to get more troops unnecessarily killed on the way out, is one I continue to find unconvincing. I still say get ’em out as fast as the logistics allow. We’ve done enough damage for one lifetime (and then some).


abb1 11.01.06 at 2:34 pm

According to this LATimes piece, vast majority of the attacks are directed against the coalition and Iraqi security forces.

Sunni insurgents in the Euphrates River towns and cities of Iraq’s desert hinterlands deem U.S. troops an occupation force and the Baghdad government, run by the nation’s long-subjugated Shiite majority, little more than an American puppet.

I think the US/UK troops should leave and then instead of direct elections the Iraqis need to institute a Lebanon-style quota-based power-sharing arrangement. The minorities – the Kurds and especially the Sunni Arabs – should have disproportionally high number of representatives and hold permanently some key offices in the government, just like (if I understand correctly) Christians and other smaller minorities do in Lebanon. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. I think the Shia leaders are probably ready to give a little by now, for the sake of stability.


stuart 11.01.06 at 3:05 pm

I agree that a leave slowly doesnt seem to have any advantages that I can see, and several disadvantages. If you leave a geographic area at a time, the attacks will increase in the area rapidly (as has been seen passing over territory to Iraqi control recently, even in previously quite areas). Leaving slowly but evenly will leave more and more small pockets of troops, just as the militants are likely to have a boost in recruitment and are looking for targets to go for.

Isn’t leaving slowly more a sop to the portion of the base that want to be left with the impression that the war was “won” and the coalition didn’t have to leave with its tail between its legs, just as was predicted by many before the invasion started.


luci 11.01.06 at 5:43 pm

civil wars tend to go on for a long time, and are usually resolved when one side or another gains a decisive military victory […] both sides in a civil war are organized so as to fear that the other side will try to grab power, and both are likely to be tempted to try to grab power for themselves.

Not original, but I’ve thought that a high degree of certainty about the eventual outcome must be generated, somehow. That some arrangement, as close to acceptable for the groups as possible, be picked and promoted as unavoidable. A third party must impose this from outside, with the collaboration of as many Iraqi elites as possible – their incentives would be to wield power in this new system. Once a significant level of certainty exists about the final outcome, agents will start to switch from trying to game this chaotic environment for their gain, to trying to game the eventual outcome, through whatever channels exist. IOW, they start to buy in.

This eventual outcome should probably look like a three way partition – one country with much power devolved to the three states. And the mass migrations might look like the Indian and Pakistani population exchange at partition, hopefully without the massive, massive bloodshed.

The key would be to make this appear unavoidable, and motivate agents to buy-in. What about enormous financial incentives? The Iraq war has cost the US 338 billion so far (in Congressional appropriations). With a Iraqi population of 26 million, this is $13,000 US, per Iraqi citizen (in a country of $3,500 per capita). And lots of these are kids – average household size is 6.9, so $90,000 US could be made available for each family to buy in (and relocate if necessary). US troops (though hopefully UN troops) could start building the border fences and manning them.

Administration would be difficult – cash would have to come over a few years to ensure compliance and mitigate the crazy inflation.


snuh 11.01.06 at 7:00 pm

this may be a brilliant idea, but sadly the number of american troops in iraq is not only not falling, it’s actually increasing.


arthur 11.01.06 at 7:55 pm

And who do we have to blame for this? The cut and run democrats! : /


Nell 11.01.06 at 8:02 pm

George McGovern and William Polk were on BookTV last weekend, summarizing Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now. Polk repeatedly cited his study of guerrilla wars and internal conflicts to draw the lesson of fast-serious-and-practical withdrawal.

The Practical Plan also contains proposals for specific post-withdrawal projects, with funding estimates expressed as number of months of spending for the current occupation. These are things such as baseline health surveys, property damage surveys, etc. that represent the absolute minimum of our obligation.


Jim Harrison 11.01.06 at 8:09 pm

Foreign policy is the one area of government that is inevitably personal because decisions have to be made in real time in the light of rapidly changing circumstances. Which is why I’m skeptical about the “plans” that people always call for in the run-up to elections. They don’t mean a damn thing, especially when the presidency is not up for grabs. Since the Bush people will be conducting the war and no doubt screwing it up for another two years, I think that all five acts of this tragedy will be played out.


roy belmont 11.01.06 at 8:15 pm

Sometimes it helps to metaphorise it, reduce it to a bar-fight, make it your Dad, or even you, in there kicking the shit out of some yobs who unexpectedly started fighting back and then it got you know a little out of hand now it’s like an actual free-for-all brawl, and you did it, you caused it, it’s your fault.
And now you’re going to what? Slip out the service door? Cut your losses?
What are you going to tell the owner, the innocent bystanders – in the metaphor that would be the Iraqis as a whole, including the up-and-coming generations whose prospects you’ve now reduced to approximately minus 5 hundred on a scale of ten.
This is not a facetious question, I’m irritated beyond bearing by all this clamor for withdrawal that universally sidesteps the central question – what message you’ll leave in your wake.
So far it’s nothing more than a macabre cartoon – a little patter, a little soft shoe, the top hat tipped toward the footlights, buck-and-wing, cue the orchestra – music swells, and ta-da…curtain!
Maybe instead of starting with a strategy, all rational and cost-benefit, you could start with creating and articulating an attitude, something you can express and stand behind, get it out there and see how it holds up.


harry b 11.01.06 at 8:52 pm

I have a lot of roy belmont’s feelings, though couldn’t have expressed them like that. The problem is this: the truth is that this was a macarbre adventure pursued with reckless disregard for the possible bad consequences in large part because the bearers of those possible bad consequences would be innocent Iraqis. So the message sent by withdrawal is clear and, unfortunately, sincere and true. It would be true even if we didn’t withdraw.


stuart 11.01.06 at 8:54 pm

How’s this for an attitude: it was a mistake to go there, it was made worse by staying there, and will continue to get worse whether they stay or not, we should get out. As for the all important message left in the wake of the withdrawal: we screwed up.


Martin Bento 11.01.06 at 9:29 pm

Because an Iraqi withdrawal is an admission of failure, not only will Bush not do it, the American people will condemn it. Oh, sure, they support it now, but they supported pulling out of Vietnam at the time too. In hindsight, it will become the stab in the back. So we have to be very careful, as things will likely get worse when we leave, just not for us.

I think the best argument for pulling out of Iraq is Afghanistan. Currently, we are losing there too. But if we redeploy our forces from Iraq, it would still be possible to win there. And maybe even find bin Laden. And Afghanistan, after all, is the war the majority still thinks was justified.


Steve LaBonne 11.01.06 at 9:55 pm

As potential Democratic soundbites go I’d say this is a good start.


Daniel 11.02.06 at 2:20 am

This is the doctrine of the “Decent Interval” as practised in Vietnam, where it has to be said it was not much of a success.


bad Jim 11.02.06 at 3:51 am

A longer American occupation of Vietnam would probably not have reduced mortality then, and a prolongation of the present situation may be no more likely to prove productive.

If something wasn’t worth doing in the first place, it probably isn’t worthwhile to persevere.


maidhc 11.02.06 at 4:19 am

Well, suppose the Americans and the Brits just leave. Who will fill the power vacuum?

I don’t claim to be an expert. But I would like to be corrected if my ideas are wrong.

The Kurds–would just want to hold on to what they have.

The Turks–would just want to make sure that the Kurds don’t get so powerful that they encourage the Turkish Kurds, plus they want to support the rights of the Turkmens in Iraq.

Iran–would support the Shia parties because they don’t want to go to war again.

Syria–would prefer stability next door, no special strategic goals.

Saudis–don’t want Shia control to cross the border into their oil regions. No real military power, but lots of money so could hire mercenaries.

Iraqi Sunnis–have been in charge of things for ages, want to preserve control and fearful of reprisals.

Iraqi Shia–downtrodden for ages, want to turn the tables. Not necessarily beholden to Iran, but might accept aid.

As I am not an expert, I would like to be corrected if my thinking is incorrect.

I could see the following stable outcomes:

(1)The Sunni manage to overpower the Shiites, Kurds independent.

(2)The Shiites manage to overpower the Sunni, Kurds independent.

(3)Some sort of Lebanese-like power-sharing agreement.

(4)Complete anarchy, like Somalia. Only a stable outcome in the sense that various warlords would emerge.

(5)Some strongman takes over. In the current situation, no one seems to have what it takes.

Please inform my ignorance.


roy belmont 11.02.06 at 8:10 am

Well Steve, the man in the video says because of Iraq “there are more terrorists in the world”.
Which you’d think might just open up the discussion enough to bring in the idea that maybe just maybe the “creation of terrorists” through boneheaded hubris scuttling greed and furtive arrogance may have more of an historical substance than we’ve been led to believe.
Are we supposed to hate the terrorists created by this bogus invasion and brutal occupation?
I’m having a hard time doing that.
Are we supposed to pretend that even though we can be responsible for unnecessarily tipping young Iraqis, and Muslims around the world, toward hatred and denunciation, we can’t possibly be responsible for the terrorism that preceded the invasion of Iraq?
I’m having a hard time pretending that.
Hating and pursuing bin Laden into Afghanistan – or wherever- is a fallback position that allows otherwise sensible Americans to draw moral lines in a world gone mad.
How can anyone possibly think that an Iraqi can’t put the obvious picture together – that if we leave any time from here on out, we could have left last year, or two years ago. And everyone who’s died because we didn’t died without cause or justice.
Which if you pay attention is what the whole terrorist thing’s been about from the get.
Injustice is nothing new, and it didn’t begin on September 11th 2001, or in March of 2003.


Steve LaBonne 11.02.06 at 8:51 am

If there was a point in there somewhere, roy, I’m afraid it failed to pentrate my thick skull. Could you summarize it in fewer but more pointed words?

Anyway I was not attempting to discuss international morality, but merely strategies for making US politics, not perfect, to be sure, but more decent than at present. I always prefer to pursue limited but worthy and achievable goals rather than utopian ones.

I certainly agree that “everyone who’s died because we didn’t [leave] died without cause or justice.” I am outraged by that. The immediate problem is to convince the US public that we need to get the hell out of there before there’s any more of it. Furthering their education beyond that point is something we can worry about at our leisure after that’s been accomplished.


abb1 11.02.06 at 8:54 am

I got the feeling (infamous gut feeling) that “major massacres of civilians” aren’t nearly as certain as most people think. Again: most insurgent violence, perhaps over 90% of it, is directed against the foreign troops and the puppet government’s troops. Remove the provocation, remove the motivation – and there doesn’t seem to be much reason to fight.

Well, except perhaps Kurds vs. Arabs, but that should be relatively easy to prevent or at least to moderate.


Richard 11.02.06 at 10:11 am

“Withdraw troops slowly” seems like the sort of thing Steven Poole excels at eviscerating. It sounds careful, like putting a smoking bomb down gently before running for cover, or putting a fretful baby to sleep at night. It doesn’t speak of unseemly haste. It simultaneously panders to popular opinion (get the troops out now) while dressing it up as masterly control (proceed firmly but gently, as befits a Great Power). It contains, as noted above, no thought of how such a trickling out would play out on the ground.

How weird and sickening that it should be accepted as a wise thing to say to the public at election time.


stuart 11.02.06 at 10:21 am

“Major massacres of civilians” are likely to come when the majority Shi’ite government militias try to clean up all the Sunni militias and insurgents who, unsurprising, won’t really believe the democratic process is going to do anything except weaken their position – which it already has been doing. In doing so they are likely to kill civilians, and radicalise other Sunni’s and it is likely large numbers will die before that burns itself out or drops down to a lower intensity.


Victor Freeh 11.02.06 at 11:08 am

This is not a facetious question, I’m irritated beyond bearing by all this clamor for withdrawal that universally sidesteps the central question – what message you’ll leave in your wake.

I’m not clamoring for withdrawal myself but what a bizarre thing to say. For me the central question on this front is whether withdrawal will result (as I suspect) in an ethnically based civil war with all the attempts at mutual genocide that such things often entail. The central question is what message we leave in our wake? In this (and little else) you sound a lot like the current crop of Republicans.


abb1 11.02.06 at 11:12 am

“Major massacres of civilians” are likely to come when the majority Shi’ite government militias try to clean up all the Sunni militias…

Most likely they won’t. They do it now because they have the US military protecting them and assisting them; and as long as the US is protecting them, they have no reason to compromise, because they can’t lose; they will keep trying to “clean up” forever. Whatever compormise the Sunni leaders might offer – the Shia leaders have the clear incentive to reject it and press for more; why wouldn’t they – they can’t lose.

This is similar to the Israeli/Palestinian situation.


Nabakov 11.02.06 at 11:44 am

“…major massacres of civilians…a Lebanon-type civil war is highly likely to break out…”

Umm..what do you think is happening in Iraq right now? Corporate restructuring?


BruceR 11.02.06 at 12:02 pm

I’m personally looking forward to Jonah Goldberg’s next “enemy on my garden lawn” analogy. If a ravenous grizzly bear walked onto your lawn, would you run away, or would you maintain eye contact and back away slowly, etc… You can all write the rest by now.


Victor Freeh 11.02.06 at 12:50 pm

Umm..what do you think is happening in Iraq right now? Corporate restructuring?

This is the immediate response to “But if we withdraw there will be chaos!” and it’s certainly got some merit. Still, I can’t help thinking that at least in our current situation, you can’t march an army down the main street of Baghdad. If you hate Sunnis (or Shiites, take your pick), you can go get yourself an IED and set it off in the appropriate marketplace to kill a bunch of them. What you can’t do is get together with 400 of your best friends and go house by house through the appropriate neighborhood, killing everyone you find. (Something you’re especially likely to do if you suspect that the folks in that neighborhood are planning to do the same in yours.)


abb1 11.02.06 at 2:07 pm

I don’t think they do ‘400 friends house by house’; Iraq is not Alabama. They have a structure, hierarchy; they do what their ayatollah tells them to do. And ayatollahs aren’t necessarily stupid people.


Jack 11.02.06 at 4:29 pm

The post by maidhc (#17) lists possible outcomes if we leave, without trying to predict which will happen, which is intelligent, since the record of people making predictions about what will happen in Iraq is miserable. Maidhc missed at least one possibility: the longer we stay, the stronger Al Qaeda grows, so that when we eventually withdraw, Al Qaeda has a new political and territorial base, probably in the Sunni part of Iraq.

The fact is, folks, we do not know what will happen if we withdraw, and we do not know what will happen if we stay. Maybe withdrawal will be followed by massacres; maybe it won’t. We simply don’t know. Worse, whatever path we take, we will never know where the other path would have led.

It is safe to say that if the US withdraws now, it will be perceived as having been defeated. This will have repercussions, bad repercussions. For example, “stab in the back” politics by right-wing Americans. From a cold blooded political point of view, it would be better to let the Republicans burn for two more years in the fire they lit.

For me, withdrawal as soon as possible is the right answer, but I don’t like the politics of it.


roy belmont 11.02.06 at 10:50 pm

Steve – agreed agreed. and it seems the big invisible obstacle to leaving would be the presentation of an accurate, moral, ethical, human attitude toward what happened as well as what’s happeing(leaving).
Thus the pseudo-debate involving “cut-and-run” and “stay-the-course”.
Troops out now yes good okay but you have to say something while you do it, and that as to be something real and solid and more than a soundbite catchphrase. It has to be meant and it has to be real.
And it will come reflecting the thing that went before, which was…?
It’s as though the whole clamoring left-wing, disparate and disorganized as it is, has no more regard for the Iraqis than the right-wing does.
We have to tell them something, and “Sorry, here’s your country back” won’t cut it.
My dream scenario has Bremer and Rumsfeld and a contingent of upper-rank rah-rah generals ceremonially redeeming the honor of America by comitting seppuku on the tarmac at Bagram as the last of the troops embark for home.
Something less cathartic but more realistic might get the job done at least temporarily, and I’m saying – point here in fewer words – that the groundswell of demand for it will form around a nucleus best signified by an honest expression of grief and remorse for what’s happened.


roy belmont 11.02.06 at 10:50 pm

italics end.


Steve LaBonne 11.03.06 at 8:27 am

Roy, I don’t think that’s really true of “the left”, it’s simply a question of how you reach those who are not on the left in order to deal with the immediate emergency- building support to get the hell out ASAP. I’m surrounded by conservatives where I live and work and I know how they think. They would be violently against many beliefs that you and I share, and sadly cannot be motivated the way you suggest; they may well NEVER reach the level of “honest grief and remorse” (or even frankly the level of giving a rat’s ass about Iraqis or any other foreigners) we’d both like them to feel. But they are turning against the war because their kids are dying for what they’re beginning to perceive as no reason, and they’re also susceptible to the argument that it’s making them less safe. Politics is the art of the possible, and we have to start by meeting people more or less where they are.


roy belmont 11.04.06 at 8:15 am

Steve – Consider the possibility that the Iraq debacle was not a mistake, not the result of incompetence at all. That the stability of the country was itself the target. That the “mission” really has been accomplished, so of course it’s time to bring the troops home.
Doesn’t that mean withdrawng the military isn’t really the thing here? Important as it is.
Consider the possibility that Bush is no more responsible, in the sense of originating the drive toward and the execution of the invasion and occupation of Iraq than Zell Miller is.
Doesn’t that mean we have to do something more, something harder and scarier, than simply electing Democrats and getting out of Iraq? Don’t we have to get down to what really took place?
Isn’t it possible, given those possibilities, that some of these stalwart non-Republicans may be just as prone to puppetry and venal compromise as their GOP counterparts?
Thus proceeds my plea for a formal attitude about withdrawal and a slogan to represent it. Because to get it will necessitate confrontation with what has happened here as well as there.
That’s what’s missing from all the clamor.
The tacit assumption is incompetence and greed. My personal view is those were and are complicitous and ennabling flaws, but the main actors – the real causative players – are driven by zealotry and unbounded arrogance, and they’re still off-stage.
I’m with Foucault in this – politics is war by other means.
Know your enemy.

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