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Withdrawal Symptoms

Quitting Iraq won't undo the real damage of the war.

So does the “crude” weaponry of insurgents. Car bombs, booby traps, and suicide belts are cheap and effective. Detonated by radio or wire from within a nearby building, roadside bombs equalize the insurgent and the invader. Detonated by fanatics, suicide bombs are extremely difficult to stop. Shaped explosives, which have started to appear in Iraq, are able to burn right through armor plate. To prevent these attacks means emphasizing force protection; this gets in the way of everything else.

The violence in Iraq is horrific, but it’s the media that makes it intolerable. Indeed, the violence is horrific only by modern standards. To truly cow a colonial population (as in British India in 1857, or on the American plains in the late 19th century) requires mass murder on a far larger scale. The presence of the media makes this most inconvenient. As we demonstrated at Fallujah, the sure way to subdue a hostile city is to destroy it. But that’s no way to win a political war back home—or hearts and minds in Iraq.

Jet travel is a military mixed blessing. Today’s army works on rotations; soldiers are deployed for about a year and then (in principle at least) they come home. When that happens, local liaisons and intelligence relationships must be rebuilt. On the other hand, if soldiers are denied the right to rotate home, their morale is going to suffer far more than in the old days when there was no such expectation. Email and blogs make sure that morale problems get home fast when the soldiers do not.

As if that were not enough, war today cannot escape the free market. When we invaded Iraq, the borders collapsed and import restrictions were eliminated. Imports surged, notably of electrical appliances like air conditioners and refrigerators. By the time the electricity supply was rebuilt, demand had skyrocketed, and the power could run for only a few hours a day. Without control over electrical demand, the reconstruction effort was crippled, and the Americans couldn’t win the Iraqi people’s respect and support. They were expecting miracles, after all, and they didn’t get them.

Finally, there has been a fundamental change of expectations: call it the presumption of independence. The British may have believed that their empire would always be the “dread and envy of them all,” but today no one believes the American presence in Iraq can endure over the long term. So unless you are in a safe zone (like Kurdistan) or part of an exiled elite with a posh flat in London, it does not pay to cuddle up to the occupying power. The retribution could be most unpleasant.

These are now the fundamental facts of wars of occupation. They tell us that foreign military power cannot long prevail over the territory of a people—in this case, the Sunnis of central Iraq—who are prepared to resist it to the death. This does not necessarily mean that the new Iraq will collapse when we leave. But if we cannot defeat the insurgency, then the insurgents will have to be accommodated, somehow, politically. Or else we leave the country to fight it out even more brutally in our absence.

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