The growing specter of a full-scale civil war in Iraq and the likelihood that such a conflict will draw in neighboring states has intensified a summer-long debate here over whether and how to withdraw U.S. troops.
Some analysts believe that an immediate U.S. withdrawal would make an all-out conflict less likely, while others insist that the U.S. military presence at this point is virtually all there is to prevent the current violence from blowing sky-high, destabilizing the region, and sending oil prices into the stratosphere.
The Bush administration continues to insist it will "stay the course" until Iraqi security forces can by themselves contain, if not crush, the ongoing insurgency. But an increasing number of analysts, including some who favored the 2003 invasion, believe Washington will begin drawing down its 140,000 troops beginning in the first half of next year, if for no other reason than the Republican Party needs to show voters a "light at the end of the tunnel" before the November 2006 elections.
Indeed, reports in the British press over the weekend strongly suggested that London is already planning a major drawdown next May, although Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted Sunday that "no arbitrary date has been set."
Even these plans, however, could be rendered irrelevant if the current slide toward civil war in Iraq accelerates, as a growing number of experts believe it will.
In fact, some of these analysts believe that a civil war pitting Sunnis against the Kurdish and Shia populations has already begun. "A year ago, it was possible to write about the potential for civil war in Iraq," wrote Iraq-war booster Niall Ferguson on Sunday. "Today that civil war is well underway," he asserted.
While that remains a minority view, the likelihood and imminence of civil war in Iraq is no longer questioned by analysts outside the administration.
Ferguson blames the situation on Washington’s failure to deploy a sufficient number of troops in Iraq to crush any insurgency. But a report released Monday by the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed the finger at the U.S.-sponsored constitutional process, which will culminate in a national plebiscite Oct. 15, as having further alienated Sunnis from the two other major sectarian groups.
Barring a major U.S. intervention to ensure that Sunni interests are addressed, according to the report, "Unmaking Iraq: A Constitutional Process Gone Awry," "Iraq is likely to slide toward full-scale civil war and the breakup of the country."
Similarly, no one outside the administration doubts the underreported judgment made here just last week by visiting Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
"Iraq is a very dangerous situation and a very threatening situation," he said. "The impression is [that it is] gradually going toward disintegration. There seems to be no dynamic now that is pulling the country together."
"All the dynamics there are pushing the [Iraqi] people away from each other," he said, adding that, if current trends persist, "It will draw the countries of the region into the conflict ."
This view was shared by members of a high-powered panel of Iraq and Iran specialists at the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace earlier this month.
Amid these gloomy, not to say apocalyptic, warnings, a public debate over U.S. withdrawal and specifically whether the U.S. military presence is making all-out war more or less likely has intensified outside the administration.
The mainstream position still sees the U.S. forces as a bulwark that is preventing, or at least braking, the trend toward war. According to Ferguson, who was a war-booster, the current situation, as bad as it is, is just "a little local difficulty" compared to the alternative of all-out civil war and its regionalization.
"The kind of violence that we could see in Iraq if we quit now, leaving full-scale civil war to rage, would dwarf all that has happened since 2003," he predicted.
But others argue that, in the words of sociologist Michael Schwartz, "the U.S. presence doesn’t deter, but contributes to, a thickening civil-war-like atmosphere in Iraq," and that if the U.S. were leave Iraq quickly, "it is far more reasonable to assume that the level of violence would be reduced, possibly drastically, not heightened."
In a widely-read essay last week, Schwartz argued that the U.S. military is already killing more civilians than would likely die in a threatened civil war (he estimates more than 25,000 civilian deaths a year).
He said that the U.S. presence is actually aggravating terrorist violence, rather than suppressing it, and that much of the current terrorist violence, particularly that associated with the radical Islamist group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, would be likely to subside if the U.S. left.
"The longer we wait to withdraw, the worse the situation is likely to get for the U.S. and for the Iraqis," he wrote.
Schwartz, who is situated on the left side of the political spectrum, did not explicitly embrace some of the more cold-hearted arguments made recently by conservative critics of Iraq policy, in particular Andrew Bacevich, a decorated Vietnam veteran who teaches international relations at Boston University, and retired Lt. Gen. William Odom of the Hudson Institute, who have called for the earliest possible withdrawal.
"We created the civil war when we invaded [Iraq]; we can’t prevent a civil war by staying," Odom wrote last month in an essay entitled "What’s Wrong with Cutting and Running?"
He and Bacevich both argued that, instead of creating a vacuum in Iraq that would draw in neighboring powers, Washington’s withdrawal would force neighbors and other great powers who have been relegated to the sidelines by the Bush administration’s high-handedness to form a coalition to ensure a conflict would not get out of hand.
Some of the administration’s critics, however, argue that an immediate withdrawal will indeed make things far worse, particularly for Iraqis.
"I just cannot understand this sort of argument," wrote University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole on his much-read blog.
"The U.S. military is killing a lot of Iraqis, but whether it is killing more than would die in a civil war would depend on how many died in a civil war," he wrote. "A million or two could die in a civil war, and that’s if the war stays limited to Iraq, which is unlikely."
"A U.S. withdrawal would not cause the Sunnis suddenly to want to give up their major demands; indeed, they might well be emboldened to hit the Shi’ites harder," wrote Cole, who favors both the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops and, in the absence of NATO or UN peacekeepers, the maintenance of Special Forces and U.S. airpower in the region precisely to prevent sectarian forces from escalating the conflict into a conventional civil war, as in Afghanistan.
(Inter Press Service)