Guest Editorial by Rajeev Pillay
The US is in danger of digging a deeper hole in Iraq. Just when you thought that this Administration’s policy in Iraq could not possibly get more screwed up than it already is, first it announces the building of walls around select neighbourhoods in Baghdad and then it begins to arm Sunni insurgents to fight Al Qaeda! All this comes on the heels of all the other bad decisions of monumental proportions: disbanding the army; purging all civil servants who were members of the Ba’ath party; redefining the new democratic institutions along sectarian lines; eliminating tariffs at the border; underestimating troop requirements, etc. etc. The litany of errors goes on and on.
It goes to show what sort of a bubble the US is operating in. Doesn’t General Petraeus with his much touted strategic expertise realise that together these policies confirm all of the very worst suspicions held by the average Iraqi? The average Iraqi looks at the concrete walls and says, “Where have I seen these before? Why, in Israel and the West Bank of course!!” So, he concludes, the US is trying to do to us what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. Sure enough, far from protecting residents hemmed in by the walls, these concrete barriers both make them sitting ducks for sectarian cleansing and hampers their access to schools, shops, hospitals and the requirements of daily life. In the minds of the hemmed in Iraqis, the wall is there to target them and control them and not to protect them.
Arming the Ba’athists may in the very short term help against the relatively small percentage of insurgents with Al Qaeda affiliation, but in the long term is bound to fuel the conflict between the Sunnis and Shi’a. No doubt among the Shi’a community, this move is a sign that the US now favours the Sunnis. Bombing of the Askariya shrine will surely be seen in this light and viewed in a country prone to conspiracy theories, as a sign that the US and the Sunnis are in cahoots. Already prominent Shi’a leaders are saying that the US, and not the Iraqi Government, was responsible for security around the Shrine, and are making it very clear that from their point of view failure to protect it is very difficult to understand.
As each day goes by, we are digging a deeper hole in the Middle East. The war in Iraq has already begun to spawn instability in the wider region. Lebanon is becoming a dangerous tinderbox. Turkey is slipping toward military involvement in “Kurdistan”, and the West Bank and Gaza are close to total anarchy. Insurgent technologies, battle tested in Iraq, are now showing up in other countries such as Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, which never had a foothold in Iraq under Saddam Hussein is now definitely ideologically influential in that country if not actually present. Worse still, Iraq is viewed as a symbol of Western oppression and is gaining sympathizers in Europe, sympathizers who have already taken action with disastrous consequences. Far from spreading democracy, the fanciful “reverse domino theory’ rescued and dusted off from the Cold War playbook and espoused by Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz is spreading instability, alienation and radicalization.
It really is time to pull out and reassess. The Republicans keep saying that you cannot pull out without having a solution. Well, when a bull goes into a China shop, there is no graceful solution. There is not much that can be done but to get the bull out. The shop owner is is going to have to be left to pick up the pieces and move on. It is not going to endear the US to the Iraqis, nor indeed to the rest of the world, but the damage is already done and frankly, there is no other solution.
Attention now needs to shift to holding back the forces unleashed in Iraq from spreading more widely. US credibility is now very limited in the region. We need to think in multilateral terms. We need to think in political and not military terms. We need to launch a political initiative along with the European Union in support of a political process led by the moderate countries of the region to do the necessary to halt the spreading cancer and to stabilise Iraq.
Rajeev Pillay is a founding partner of Abacus International Management L.L.C., a consulting firm that works on governance and democratization.
Mr. Pillay has been extensively involved in the development of reforms and the management of change at UNDP and the United Nations.