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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Posted: February 27, 2009 05:06 PM

Iraq and Afghanistan: Consider the Alternative


Today, President Obama unfurled his shiny plan to keep 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq under a "new mission of training, " and to send 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan. This may seem like a sleight of hand artifice (removing troops from Point A, only to drop them in Point B,) but many hawkish pundits, columnists, and bloggers respond to criticism of Obama's plan by deploying the straw-man directive for readers to "consider the alternative."

Meaning, I guess, we're supposed to concede the point that keeping armed forces in Iraq is better than some imagined, hypothetical scenario where all hell breaks loose the second our forces leave, the country dissolves into sectarian warfare (worse that the civil strife that has already occurred,) and some kind of apocalyptical genocide breaks out (the kind of genocide we care about, not the Darfur or Congo kind.)

Let's set aside the points that sectarian violence may be declining because of mass exoduses from Iraq, a significant amount of the population being dead, and US forces bribing Iraqis not to shoot each other, (all of which the Washington Post described as troops "stop(ping) a sectarian civil war.") What is this "alternative" I'm supposed to be considering?

Over at Politico, Yousef Munayyer imagines the alternative to permanent occupation as crafty foe behaving themselves only until the final US Blackhawk helicopter departs the Iraq landscape so they can then rain down terror upon the population.

The fundamental problem with measuring success in the fight against insurgency is that we can never be sure if they have stopped fighting because they have given up or because they are just laying low and waiting for us to leave. I don't know if I would call 50,000 troops "residual" but the heart of the problem is that we simply can't move out quicker because we just don't know what will happen.

This is a variation of the "consider the alternative" argument. Because the US military does not yet possess the gift of clairvoyance, we have to remain committed in the region indefinitely because, gee, just consider what might happen in this hypothetical I've invented.

It's like John McHugh (R-NY) said today after his meeting with Obama. We have to consider the possibility that something bad may happen, like "the situation on the ground deteriorat(ing) and violence increas(ing)," which may very well happen because, ya' know, we totally ripped apart the Iraqi infrastructure and societal fabric. But how do US troops occupying the region convey a new era of autonomy and peace to the Iraqis? They don't. They can't. Their presence just delays the inevitable: US troops leaving the region, and chaos and strife following a tumultuous time, followed by (hopefully) rebuilding. That's what will happen if the troops leave tomorrow. That's what will happen if the troops leave in December. The only difference is less men and women of all nationalities will die if it happens tomorrow.

To be sure, Iraq and Afghanistan are tremendously volatile regions, but deploying the "consider the alternative" argument is manipulative. Sure, something bad can happen at any given moment. Something bad might be happening in Denmark right now, or rather, something bad may happen eventually. That's a 1% chance, and Dick Cheney says that's all we need. Shall we invade? Something bad is actually happening in Darfur and the Congo right now, so why aren't our troops on their way there?

We don't know what may happen, but we do know what has happened. The wars have been disastrous, and the explanations for the decrease in violence in Iraq ranges from speculative to insincere. Killing off the population and bribing those who remain isn't a diplomatic strategy. It's making the best of a fucked-up situation. It's reason for shame, but it's certaintly not a mandate to stay in the region indefinitely because a handful of hawkish pundits keep lobbing hypotheticals at the American population.

It's just until December! comes the scream of rationalization for a new Magic Number pull-out date. We have to remain in the region until December to ensure a fair, free election. Mind you, we can't figure out how to run our own elections, but we're going to import democracy to the Iraqis. International organizations independently monitor elections all the time, but suddenly we need an occupying force to handle procedures. With the help of the UN, elections are held in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, with about 15 million citizens eligible to vote. If we're hanging around to see how the Iraqis really feel about the US occupation, they've already been abundantly clear that they want us gone. Furthermore, it's more than a little insulting to imply that Iraqis can't handle their own elections without Big Brother America holding their hands throughout the process. It's also ridiculous to imply Iraqis are somehow better off with Americans in their country. In some respects, things in Iraq are worse now than they were pre-American invasion. Take, for example, the looting of museums, disappearance of electricity, and appearance of smoking craters.

"In an ideal world, the Iraqi security forces could handle the election security themselves," says Dennis Hertel (D-MI), Vice-President of the International Elections Monitors Institute (IEMI). "Whenever there is a threat, you have to make sure the security is adequate so people can vote. Violence is intimidation for the people participating in the election." And Hertel admits that the best possible scenario is for third party, international watch groups to monitor the elections without a military presence: "The best thing is if you don't have to have armed forces, or even legal officers for elections."

Surely, Iraqis may need help rebuilding, training their military, and protecting their citizens, but a unilateral occupation isn't the answer to their problems. It is only a promise of continued strife and violence. If the United States is serious about helping (and not occupying,) they should throw full support behind the UN and look for partners in the international community to provide non-military aid.

I guess we're supposed to take Obama's new Iraq and Afghanistan plans very seriously because they suddenly have bipartisan support. But the fact that John McCain, the man who once said that it would be totally cool if our troops remained in Iraq "for 100 years," now agrees with Obama's wartime policies is a very, very bad sign. When McCain later had to explain his comment because it was tremendously awful, he cited a longstanding, ugly truth of American power: we occupy a lot of countries. It's just part of that crazy stuff we do all the time.

US Military Bases
American Military Bases (Wikipedia)

There are 737 military bases scattered around the planet, which staff roughly 2,500,000 US military personnel. It's become commonplace to send our troops to foreign countries and station them there indefinitely. It's become so banal that the so-called Progressive candidate, Barack Obama, can admit to keeping 35,000-50,000 armed troops in Iraq (with no deadline,) toe the line with John McCain and John Boehner, and the mainstream media accepts that this is a responsible, sane plan. It's accepted because, once again, something bad is out there...waiting.

The Taliban are bad news. Hardly anyone disputes that. They terrorize innocents (particularly women, young girls, and anyone trying to receive an education,) but unilateral military action has never nurtured diplomatic relations. America has been in Afghanistan for eight years, and all that has been accomplished is a resurgent Taliban insurgency that is busily overwhelming areas of Pakistan, a country with a nuclear weapon. But a continuation of unilateral firebombing of civilian-populated regions doesn't work. Unlike the reasons to stay in the Middle East afforded to us by the mainstream media, that's not speculation.

Occupying a country and terrorizing the population ensures only one thing: blowback. Yes, pulling out of Iraq may lead to bad things that will demand attention from the international community and the UN, but the United States galavanting across the region and crushing indigenous people inspires only hatred.

This isn't some radical, new lesson we have to learn. We've known this since 1991 during the Gulf War, when our Saudi Arabia-stationed bases pissed off this guy named Osama bin Laden. How many little Osamas are witnessing the brute, awful strength of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many members of their families and communities have our troops killed?

This just doesn't make sense for Obama's administration, or for our country. Our military and money is spread preciously thin. As Paul Krugman explained in his column today, Obama's economic plan just may work, as long as nothing bad happens (like blowback from our irresponsible and irrational actions abroad):

According to the Obama administration's budget projections, the ratio of federal debt to G.D.P., a widely used measure of the government's financial position, will soar over the next few years, then more or less stabilize. But this stability will be achieved at a debt-to-G.D.P. ratio of around 60 percent. That wouldn't be an extremely high debt level by international standards, but it would be the deepest in debt America has been since the years immediately following World War II. And it would leave us with considerably reduced room for maneuver if another crisis comes along.

That doesn't really sound like Era of Responsibility, does it? Everything will be fine as long as nothing bad happens ever again because of these stupid things we're doing in other people's countries, and none of the people we're bombing remember it was us, who bombed them. I'm sure Krugman wasn't imagining another 9/11 in his hypothetical, but it's a distinct possibility considering we're broke, and our military is crouched in a foreign desert, messing with the locals.

A long-term goal for this mess should be to make the Taliban and radicalism unappealing. That won't happen if we keep bombing countries. Poor, desperate people tend to falls into the clutches of radicalism because radicals can point up to the American jets that just decimated entire villages and say, "They did it." Militarism only fuels more anti-America fervor. Charity and multilateral efforts to help a people (not through occupation,) but through aid will gradually make such radicalism unappealing. It's not a quick fix. It will take generations, but it's worth adopting some patience into our foreign policy strategies.

And sure, there will always be a handful of baddies out there that hate us (and will always hate us,) and they'll try to hurt us. But let's consider this alternative: A surplus in the economy from the money saved not waging wars abroad, and a strong military at home (including care for veterans.) Imagine skilled interrogators, who know how to coax forth answers with a game of chess, and not waterboarding. Imagine well-trained intelligence officers networking abroad, or new, secure American infrastructure and a well-funded FDA to keep our food safe. Imagine justice and accountability, and the permanent banishment of secret prisons and tribunals so that future terrorist attacks cannot possibly be justified to the world as self-defense or "pay back."

Even in this imagined alternative, we can never be fully protected from the possibility of something bad happening. We can only be properly equipped to deal with the aftermath in a rational way. What we certainly do not need is 35,000-50,000 troops in Iraq and 17,000 more troops in Afghanistan. No imagined alternative will justify this empirical behavior.

Cross-posted from allisonkilkenny.com. Also available on Twitter.