You have offered us independence; we never asked for it, nor dreamed of such a thing 'til you put the idea into our heads. For hundreds of years, we have lived in a state as far removed from independence as it is possible to conceive; now [that] we have asked for it, you imprison us.
Those were the words uttered by an Iraqi sheikh, not in 2011, but around 1920, when the mighty British Empire ruled his land. A rebellion had erupted, and the British government came under considerable pressure from its own population to withdraw. Although order was ultimately restored, the message remained: find a way out of Iraq. By 1921, a king had been installed, and in 1932 Iraq was granted nominal independence. Nearly eighty years later, we are again witness to a superpower trying to find its way out of Iraq. Despite the enormous differences, there are still a number of lessons that we can learn from the past.
The art of perception -- how a population perceives something -- is the greatest takeaway. Barring a formal surrender prior to a pullout, people tend to view withdrawals as a retreat and a loss. The perception is that because your forces withdrew and some enemy forces may still remain, the adversary, by default, can claim victory. It appears simple enough, but what were the goals of the invasion and occupation in the first place? How badly was your enemy beaten before you withdrew, and how have things changed since you first became involved?
These are the questions that are rarely answered when the decision to withdraw is made, and in this information age of instant news and impressive propaganda campaigns, they increasingly should be. The reason is because perceptions of victory or defeat can lead to increased funding, manpower and logistical support for enemies that often employ terrorist tactics or support terrorist organizations.
For Americans, the image of the Japanese surrendering on board the USS Missouri battleship is still what many people think of as the only honorable way to end a war. But this is not 1945. Al Qaeda, or the Iranian-supported Mahdi Army, will never sign formal letters of surrender, no matter how many of their leaders are assassinated. The United States is increasingly fighting irregular wars, not conventional ones. The acceptable tools at our disposal to combat our enemies are no longer simply the use of overwhelming force, but that of precise and direct targeting. Yet despite these differences, our perceptions remain.
If the Obama administration wants to successfully and responsibly pull the majority of American forces out of Iraq, it has to begin by changing the narrative of the Iraqi conflict, starting with restating our goals and explaining how they have been achieved. Iraq will never be a western-styled democratic state, but it has come a long way since its days of ruthless control by the minority-led government of Saddam Hussein.
Secondly, once it has been established that our goals have been achieved, the United States has to successfully demonstrate that it is being asked to leave, and is not being forced to withdraw or otherwise fleeing a conflict. There is currently a debate raging over whether, in fact, the Iraqi government should request American forces to remain past the previously agreed upon December 31, 2011 deadline. This debate has often turned violent, as the Maliki government attempts to negotiate with more radical Shiite forces as well as the Sunni minority that is increasingly fearful for their own future.
It is possible that a request to remain will come from the Iraqi government, justifying the United States retaining bases and positions in that country. But a cost/benefit analysis of keeping American forces in Iraq -- and the number needed to maintain some semblance of stability as well as to deter Iran from further encroachment -- needs to be determined. Even with a request to remain, U.S. forces can be further scaled down, offering a balance between maintaining American interests in the region while ensuring it does not become entrenched in further conflict.
As the United States prepares to further draw down its forces in Iraq, it must establish and enforce red lines for what it views as activities that would justify the reintroduction of American forces. Ideally, these would be instituted as part of an understanding with the current Iraqi government. In the event that any red lines are crossed, the United States would need to act forcefully and effectively. By having an agreement in place with the Iraqi government before the December 31 deadline, U.S. activities would be clearly justified. High on the list of red lines would be increased meddling by Iranian or Syrian forces in Iraqi affairs, or the unaccepted establishment of terrorist safe havens in Iraq.
None of the abovementioned suggestions are ideal, but neither are the realities on the ground. The American people are accepting the continued role of the United States in Iraq largely because casualties are low and, therefore, do not make the headlines. If wide-scale violence would return to the streets of Iraq -- potentially as a result of the continued presence of U.S. forces in that country -- pressure to withdraw would grow to levels not seen since 2006. The Obama administration needs to act now to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in a timely and intelligent manner, in order to ensure that when the pullout does take place it looks more like a planned withdrawal, and less like a retreat or defeat.
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