Is Withdrawal Inevitable?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 12:53 PM EST

Christopher Dickey, who seems to have a good ear for goings-on in the Middle East, has this twist on the debate over when and how the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq. Basically, he says, the United States is no longer in the driver's seat:

So topsy-turvy is the policy at this point that we're not going to imagine leaving until the Iraqi government demands that we go—and you can be sure the Iraqis who are now taking power will do just that. When? As soon as they and their Iranian allies have consolidated their hold on the southern three fourths of the country and its oil. [n.b. And not, as the Pentagon prefers, when a national Iraqi army can take over security.] ...

The Bush administration no longer sets the agenda in Iraq, in fact, and hasn't for at least two years. The watershed came in November 2003 when there was a dramatic spike in U.S. casualties and Washington suddenly scrambled together a policy for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis instead of pocketing it indefinitely for the Pentagon and the oil companies, as originally intended. The American invasion, which was supposed to be proactive, has led to an occupation that is entirely reactive, and it's clear—or ought to be—that the castles in the air constructed by Wolfowitz and his friends have been blown away by facts on the ground.There's certainly evidence that that's the case. Ahmad Chalabi, who is almost certainly an Iranian ally of some sort—if only a temporary ally—and may well become prime minister in December elections, has already suggested a tentative deadline for withdrawal, telling Congress that 2006 should be a "period of significant transition" for the United States, echoing language in a recent Senate defense bill. Moqtada al-Sadr is uniting Sunni and Shiite radicals in Iraq in support of U.S. withdrawal. The Pentagon even has a plan to do so, if necessary, drawing down to about 80,000 troops by 2006. (On the other hand, maybe Chalabi won't be prime minister after all: polls show that Ibrahim Jaaferi, who seems to want the U.S. to stay, is still pretty popular.)

It's hard to say what the end result would be of a forced drawdown plus the pro-Iranian Shiites "consolidat[ing] their hold on the southern three fourths of the country." Chaos, probably. War, maybe. Ezra Klein argues that if the United States got out in front on this and pre-empted the Shiites by withdrawing before said consolidation happened, it would force Chalabi and his belligerent Shiite allies to play nice with the Sunni insurgency. That's certainly possible. On the other hand, a troop drawdown could just as easily spur each and every Iraqi party to panic, grab whatever gun or armed ally they can find, and make war more, rather than less, likely. Sabrina Tavernise reports today that already "20 cities and towns around Baghdad are segregating" by sect, an ominous sign. Trying to predict how Iraqis will react to our future American actions seems pretty dubious. It's much safer to predict that whenever the troop drawdown comes, it will be conducted no less incompetently than every other aspect of the war so far.