Mother Jones: How do you see the United States getting out of Iraq, and how out will we get?
Paul Pillar: One has to consider political realities back in Washington and the United States in addition to what is best for Iraq and what is best for U.S. interests overseas. One of the reasons I believe the Iraq Study Group report represented a missed opportunity when the administration, at least initially, shoved it aside—now it seems to be taking a second look at it by necessity—is that it represented a rallying point for people of various political persuasions, including supporters and opponents of the administration, to start the process of extricating ourselves from Iraq. I have advised people who may be inclined to get out more quickly and more completely than the ISG report suggests that those political realities have to be taken into account, which I think is what some of the Democratic leadership in Congress—Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi—have tried to do. It has obviously been a point of impatience for some of their members on their side of the aisle who would like to get out more quickly and more completely.
But in terms of what is realistic, especially what is realistic over these next 18 months, I think something closer to the ISG formula is what we are talking about.
MJ: The players in the region may see more clearly even than people in Washington that the U.S. in some midterm is getting out or reducing its presence, and that our actions are not leading toward a unified Iraq. So how are these players calculating to protect themselves and their interests?
PP: The neighboring states certainly are thinking ahead toward the day when the U.S. presence in Iraq will be at least appreciably reduced if not gone altogether. And their main concern is preventing the disorder in Iraq from infecting their own politics. The concerns vary from one country to another. The Saudis, for example, would have uppermost in mind the terrorist or other extremist activity of returning jihadists largely of Saudi nationality who, having acquired skills and inspiration in the jihad in Iraq, may come back south to employ that inside the kingdom.
The Iranians, of course, are concerned more about the Shiite/Sunni balance and about what sort of political structures in the land to their west may have spillover effects in their own body politic. Others, like the Jordanians and Syrians, have the refugee problem to deal with and are dealing with that right now and would fear that it could get even worse.
In addition to some of these other political considerations, the Turks, of course, continue to have very strong concerns of Turkish separatism and their main worry would be, I think, that the more disorder and/or fractionation in Iraq, the more this begins to look closer to an independent Kurdistan. And of course, there is the worry over the PKK fighters using Iraqi territory to conduct attacks inside of Turkey.
MJ:Why don’t the Saudis support the Maliki government, a stable Iraq?
PP: A stable Iraq is one thing; the Maliki government is something else. First of all, the caveat: I don’t think we know much directly or at all exactly what the Saudis are saying. But the indications are that the Saudis have a skeptical view at best, a dim view perhaps more accurately, of Maliki and his government. I think they see him as a very narrowly focused Shiite leader, who in their view has neither the talent nor the information to bring about a stable movement in Iraq.
MJ: Is there anyone in Iraq currently who could do that?
PP: It’s hard to see anyone in the Iraqi political scene who’s going to be the political savior. If there is a strong leader who does emerge, he is likely to be someone who will have more authoritarian tendencies. We would not like it, but my counsel would be to accept it. Having someone like a Nasser or a Tito may in fact wind up being one of the best things that could happen as a way of achieving at least a modicum of stability within which we could pull out faster and more completely.
MJ: What historical comparisons come to mind when you look at the U.S. leaving Iraq? Lebanon? Vietnam?
PP: Lebanon is the best overall analogy, with regard to the structure of the geopolitical situation that underlies the conflict and with regard to the prospect for some kind of civil war to smolder on for quite a few years until the parties are so exhausted that they ascribe to some sort of accord. There really has to be an exhaustion of the contending sides before they’re willing to settle.
MJ: So, do you see Iraq moving toward a soft partition?
PP: Yes, that’s already happened to a large degree both within cities, like Baghdad, and then overall nationally. And the refugee and internally-displaced-person situation, which has continued to grow, has been one of the reflections of that. We’ve got a long way to go before it all settles down.
MJ: What do we do with all the equipment that we have in Iraq? Do we leave some materials for the Iraqi security forces?
PP: I don’t have a lot of hope that the things we would leave behind would become the wherewithal of the well-organized, well-led, legitimate security forces, military forces. Most stuff left behind is going to get into the hands of people we don’t even know about.
MJ: What about keeping a smaller force in Iraq for counterterrorism, training the Iraqis, and preventing a regional war?
PP: I believe what Stephen Biddle of the Council of Foreign Relations has said, which is that there is no middle ground that really makes sense. Stephen’s basic point is when you look at the difficulties of training or difficulties of doing anything where you’re somewhere between zero and a force at least as large as we’ve got now, the difficulties multiply to such an extent that there’s no halfway solution here.
If, as I believe, we have to reverse what was in my judgment a grave mistake on the part of Washington executives, from the standpoint of all the American interests involved, getting out sooner and more quickly is better than getting out slower and less quickly.
MJ: Don’t we have some obligation to stick around in some capacity in order to try to prevent genocide?
PP: There will be more killing as we leave, and that will be true whenever we leave. And there will not necessarily be less killing by leaving later rather than sooner.