Mother Jones: Were we to withdraw from Iraq, what would be a reasonable time frame for doing so?
Colonel W. Patrick Lang: The question is whether or not you withdraw under combat conditions, as we did from Vietnam over a period of three and a half years. Everybody left in March of ’73. I was on the last scheduled flight. There was a period of two years when it was real quiet. The only Americans in the country were about 1,000 guys attached to the embassy. Then the North Vietnamese decided that the U.S. Congress was serious when it passed legislation forbidding any further assistance in South Vietnam. Then they went on the offensive and captured the country. I got to Vietnam the first time in March of ’68, and early in ’69 Nixon announced that we were going to withdraw in stages, what people call Vietnamization. We took the force down in about 20 phases. It was carefully worked out what would leave when and what parts of the country we would leave. That was under combat conditions. We took about 20,000 kills over the period of the evacuation and they lost a lot of people. So you have that possibility or you have the possibility of a largely administrative withdrawal. In Vietnam we turned most everything we had over the three and a half years of the withdrawal to the South Vietnamese army and air force. They lost it all to the North Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese made a lot of money off that. For about 10 years they sold spare parts and pieces of helicopters and things like that all over the world. There’s a lot of stuff in Iraq that the Army and the Marine Corps can’t afford to leave there. There are all these Abrams tanks. These tanks are unbelievably expensive. The Bradley fighting vehicles and a whole variety of artillery pieces need to be brought back to the States.
MJ: So we wouldn’t be likely to turn these pieces of equipment over to the Iraqis?
WPL: There’s no intention to create a heavy army there that might be a problem in a regional situation, so nobody wants to leave them a bunch of battle tanks. They couldn’t maintain them anyway. These things are very, very maintenance intensive. We need them anyway. We can’t afford to give them up. So the idea that we’re leaving in four or five months—just head for the ports and take a bunch of ships and airplanes and everybody leave—it’s really unrealistic.
MJ: If we were to withdraw from Iraq, do you envision a scenario in which there would be ethnic cleansing?
WPL: Very likely. It’s already well under way all across Baghdad. The Sunnis are being shoved out of Baghdad. The neighborhoods that used to belong to them are now firmly under Shiite control, and that’s happening all across the country. Ethnic cleansing is well under way. It’s much the same thing that happened in the Balkans.
MJ: The fact that there are now a lot of Iraqi refugees in the region could have a destabilizing effect on neighboring regimes.
WPL: After the creation of the state of Israel you had all of these Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Gaza Strip. This has been a destabilizing factor in all of those countries and the same thing would be true here. That’s different from saying that will automatically lead to internecine war.
MJ: What do you think a prudent course of action in Iraq would be?
WPL: I tend to believe on the military side we’re doing the right thing. I have advocated what we’re doing in Anbar and Diyala for the last two or three years. That is to strip off the non-jihadi insurgents from the Al Qaeda ones and get them to fight the jihadis. They have every reason to do so because the AQ guys come in and they want to disrupt your entire way of life and make you live differently, by a form of Islam that is a pain in the ass. What I’ve advocated is to go around and solve this thing diplomatically, seeking a political solution that is agreed upon by the major players in the region. The administration seeks a solution based on its own image of peace, which is of a region waiting to be westernized, which it is not. History says their vision of the Middle East is incorrect, but they still insist that they’re going to change the whole place instead of trying to bring these people together so that everyone can live in relative peace and calm. I think they’re presenting the wrong goal. You need to push the military thing the way they’re doing now while at the same time conducting a massive diplomatic offensive.
MJ: If we leave, what happens to the Iraqis who have been working with U.S. troops?
WPL: They’re in big trouble. We have a profound responsibility, a moral responsibility—not for the politicians, to hell with them, the Chalabis of the world, but for all these little guys who come onto the forward operating bases and do whatever it is they do. They’re going to be really victimized after we leave. There’s a long history of that. Vietnam was one case.
MJ: It doesn’t seem like we’re granting visas.
WPL: It’s the same reason why [the administration] is afraid to have discussion of withdrawal crop up. They refuse to allow any open discussion of any kind of the possibility that this might not turn out well. It’s kind of like being in business. I was in business for 10 years after I left the government. If you’re doing something where you may succeed or you may fail, right up until the day you fail you’re going to continue to insist that you’re going to succeed because if you don’t, then you have failed. This is much the same thing. The government has to keep insisting, “Of course we’re going to win; you don’t have to give these people visas. They’re supposed to stay there. It’s their country.”
MJ: You brought up our moral obligation. What is our moral obligation to Iraq as a whole, not just to those who are working with the U.S.?
WPL: It’s profound, but past a certain point there’s nothing you can do about it, because you can’t take all the people in Iraq over here who would want to come to the United States. Although you caused this mess, there’s just nothing you can do about it. But the ones who actively sit on our side, that’s another matter.