TCS Daily

Withdrawal Under Fire

By Michael Totten - July 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made headlines when he told Fox News that insurgencies tend to go on for five to twelve years. The worrisome implication here was that the Iraqi insurgency could last as long as twelve. Maybe it will. It could also last thirteen. Perhaps it will only last three, in which case it's already more than half over. Donald Rumsfeld doesn't know. No one knows. Rumsfeld does know his own mind, though, and he said something else that almost everyone seems to have missed. He strongly implied that the US intends to withdraw from Iraq under fire.

We're not going to win against the insurgency. The Iraqi people are going to win against the insurgency. That insurgency could go on for any number of years. Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years...Coalition forces, foreign forces are not going to repress that insurgency. [Emphasis added.]

President Bush said something similar in his televised address at Fort Bragg two days later:

[O]ur military is helping to train Iraqi security forces so that they can defend their people and fight the enemy on their own. Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down. [Emphasis added.]

So we aren't going to stay and finish off the terrorists and insurgents. Iraqis will do it. That means that whenever we stop fighting and leave...people in Iraq will still be firing at us.

Withdrawing under fire emboldens our enemies. It gives them a tremendous propaganda victory. "The Americans can be beaten," they'll say, just as they said the same thing when we withdrew under fire from Lebanon in the 80s and Somalia in the 90s. "We sapped their will to fight. They ran just like the Soviets did in Afghanistan...and look at what happened to them." The US will be called a cowardly "paper tiger" and all the rest of it.

This would be, as Rumsfeld himself likes to put it, not helpful.

But it's not the whole story.

The propaganda victory for both the Sunni Arab insurgents and the terrorists from outside the country could turn into a pyrrhic one. There is such a thing, after all, as a tactical retreat. It could work to our advantage if we don't do it prematurely, if the Iraqi government really is strong enough to mop this up on its own.

When Israel withdrew its occupation forces from Southern Lebanon in the year 2000, the Israeli and American right claimed it was a show of weakness, that retreating under Hezbollah's fire would embolden Israel's enemies. They were half right, at least. Hezbollah did, in fact, claim victory for driving the Zionist infidels out. It looked like Israel could be beaten after all.

But Israel can't be beaten. The joke was on Hezbollah.

Years ago the people of Lebanon really did think of Hezbollah as a nationalist resistance group fighting the good fight against a foreign occupier. When the Israelis left they knocked Hezbollah's entire raison d'ĂȘtre right out from under them. The only people inside Lebanon who still seriously support the existence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, rather than a mainstream religious-right political party, are right-wing Shia. Almost everyone else -- Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze, liberal and centrist Shia -- will only do business with Hezbollah on cynical, tactical, and realpolitik grounds. Hezbollah is widely seen among Lebanese as a reactionary throwback to the era of the civil war. The overwhelming majority of Christians and Sunnis fear and loathe them.

The only reason Hezbollah's disarmament isn't considered a top-priority emergency is because they are, for the most part, in a defensive non-threatening holding pattern. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, is scrambling to slow the speed of his own marginalization. He has given up the dream of turning Lebanon into an Iranian-style Islamic Republic. The only way Hezbollah can "win" elections even on their own Shia turf in the south is by forging a bogus tactical alliance with the centrist and secular Shia party Amal. No one knows when Hezbollah will be disarmed and integrated into the Lebanese army. But everyone, including Hassan Nasrallah, knows it is going to happen.

Israel's "retreat" condemned Hezbollah to a slow-motion doom. Their doom would have been dramatically accelerated if their Syrian patrons had not occupied Lebanon in the meantime. It's quite likely the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, which ousted the Syrian military, would never have happened if Israel, too, still occupied large swaths of the country.

Every dramatic political development in Lebanon since the Israeli "retreat" has worked to the advantage of Israel. None might have happened had Israel stayed.

We may be able to pull a similar and more effective coup of sorts inside Iraq even if we leave under fire -- if, that is, Iraqis really can finish the job on their own. (Otherwise a retreat would clear the way for a catastrophic world-historical victory for the most vicious gangs of terrorists on the planet.) Those who still want to fight -- the Sunni rejectionists and the foreign Islamists -- will be emboldened, no doubt. But the number of people who want to fight in the first place will drop, and it may drop precipitously.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the following miracles take place on our watch: The US military and the Iraqi government get a 100 percent approval rating from Iraqis, the economy takes off as a Middle Eastern "tiger," all the decayed infrastructure is brought up to First World standards, former Baathists regret the errors of their old ways, and all Iraqi Islamists mellow out and become mainstream religious conservatives. Terrorist violence would still continue to rage inside Iraq. That's because our worst enemies in Iraq aren't even Iraqis. Winning 100 percent of Iraqi "hearts and minds" will not end this war.

Both US and Iraqi officials say the "vast majority" of suicide-bombers in Iraq come from outside the country. They stream in from the border states because it's their big change to fight "for" Iraq and against the United States. They truly believe they're doing Iraqis a favor by attacking the Great Satan and its "collaborators." The presence of American boots is the magnet that draws them and the lash that drives them.

Al Qaeda's Iraq franchise requires an American infidel presence. A democratically elected Arab government apparently isn't enough of a draw all by itself. There is no Al Qaeda franchise in Lebanon, for example, despite the fact that Lebanon's latest incarnation of parliament was freely elected. Remove the Great Satan from Iraq and we'll deal a body blow to the head-choppers' and the self-detonators' motivation for going to Iraq in the first place. It's the reverse of the flypaper strategy.

According to the flypaper theorists, it's worth it to stick around and fight non-Iraqi terrorists in Iraq because if we didn't fight them there we would only have to fight them somewhere else. It makes a certain amount of sense, up to a point, in a "look on the bright side" sort of way. But it's awfully expensive, not only in American blood and treasure but in Iraqi blood and treasure as well.

It's also not why we invaded Iraq. There were many reasons for the invasion, of course. The elimination of apparently non-existent weapons of mass destruction was merely a legalistic excuse. But deliberately turning Iraq into a never-ending Energizer Bunny of urban asymmetrical war zones was not and is not our purpose. The flypaper theory requires us to believe that violence in Iraq is a good thing. But the sooner Iraq settles down the better off we'll all be, Americans and Iraqis alike. We all instinctively know this.

One of the most compelling reasons for regime-change in Iraq is that the terrorist-producing Middle Eastern status quo desperately needs democratic reform and that Iraq was the logical place to kickstart it. Saddam Hussein deserved it more than anyone else in the neighborhood, and we were already in a simmering state of war with him anyway. One free Arab state can act as a model for the rest of the region.

But Iraq can't be a model for anything if it's a boiling cauldron of violence -- unless you happen to be a Middle Eastern dictator. There's more than one historic lesson to be drawn from Lebanon. In the 1980s Arab dictatorship used that country and its sectarian civil war as a convenient excuse not to democratize. Freedom in Arab countries, they said, leads to anarchy, chaos, and violence without end. Right now they can say exactly the same about Iraq.

If Iraq becomes a functioning stable democracy -- whether it becomes one on our watch or not -- we will have accomplished every single one of our objectives in that country. If the Islamists want to twist that into a "victory" for their side because we left and let Iraqis mop up the dead-enders, let them have their delusions. They're suckers if they'll trade that for what they have now. Just ask Hezbollah.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at

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