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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Iraq: the case against the case against withdrawal

Mark Lynch (aka "Abu Aardvark") had an excellent post this week about the imagined "worst case" should the US withdraw from Iraq. He called his post, "debating withdrawal II: the phantom menace."

Lynch is not yet convinced that withdrawal is the best policy, but he does a terrific job of shooting down some of the arguments made by war supporters.

For example, Lynch doesn't think there's much risk of Iraq serving as al-Qaeda's future base. It won't be another Afghanistan:
"Al-Qaeda can not seize control of Iraq because of the ethnic and regional balance of power, regardless of America's presence. The majority Shia, backed by Iran, would fight tooth and nail against it. So would many Sunnis - probably with the backing of the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Syrians who see al-Qaeda as a direct threat to their own security and survival. The al-Qaeda role in the insurgency has always been exaggerated, with the bulk of what we call the insurgency rooted in the local Sunni community..."
Even if Iraq becomes a failed state, Lynch finds it unlikely that al-Qaeda would be able to establish an operational base there. He argues that whatever Iraqis are in charge, they would not allow it.

However, I'm not sure this really gets at the administration position. The kind of truly failed state they imagine is early '90s Afghanistan or Somalia. The risks might be highest if no one is clearly in charge.

Like war opponents, Lynch thinks that the US presence in Iraq provides Al-Qaeda with a justification for killing Americans in the field that resonates with the Iraqi and Arab publics. Thankfully, he concludes:
If the Americans left, al-Qaeda would likely soon follow because killing other Iraqis does them little good - it is fighting and killing Americans which sells videos and wins recruits.
This would probably be good news for those who fear US withdrawal means civil war. True, foreigners constitute only 10% of the insurgency, but the withdrawal of both American and jihadi forces would almost have to make any civil war less deadly. After all, there would be fewer weapons and targets.

Lynch says that a more serious argument offered by war proponents is that Al-Qaeda might claim victory and erode US credibility. He finds this point "unpersuasive," however, largely because the US presence in Iraq was obviously not a key al-Qaeda grievance on 9/11. Do "they" really hate us more now than they did then? The Iraq war may provide an additional recruiting spark in Iraq, but withdrawal would likely reduce that threat. Lynch also discusses some academic work about state reputation suggesting that these kinds of fears about credibility are overblown (related work here).

Finally, Lynch accurately notes that the war is also economically costly to the US, which may actually be consistent with terrorist goals.

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