Iraq after an American defeat will look very much like Iraq today””a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part. Defeat is defined by America’s failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place, along with the increase of Iranian power in the region.
Iraq’s Kurdish leaders and Iraq’s dwindling band of secular Arab democrats fear that a complete US withdrawal will leave all of Iraq under Iranian influence. Senator Hillary Clinton, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke are among the prominent Democrats who have called for the US to protect Kurdistan militarily should there be a withdrawal from Iraq. The argument for so doing is straightforward: it secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western; it discharges a moral debt to our Kurdish allies; it deters both Turkish intervention and a potentially destabilizing Turkish”“ Kurdish war; it provides US forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaeda in adjacent Sunni territories; and it limits Iran’s gains.
We need to recognize…that Iraq no longer exists as a unified country. In the parts where we can accomplish nothing, we should withdraw. But there are still three missions that may be achievable””disrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan’s democracy, and limiting Iran’s increasing domination. These can all be served by a modest US presence in Kurdistan. We need an Iraq policy with sufficient nuance to protect American interests.Unfortunately, we probably won’t get it.
Surveying Iraq commentary, I read various proposals about how we can maintain a limited presence in Iraq, and more than a few of those proposals involve the Kurds. Galbraith is only the latest commentator to link our presence to the Kurds. There are of course very good reasons for pulling out of Iraq completely. A reasonable argument can be made that there’s nothing postive we can do that outweighs the damage inflicted by staying. An argument for full withdrawal is also supported by hints that the Sunnis may be able to cobble together a unified political front only after we leave. However, there are still imited objectives we may be able to obtain by reducing our presence but leaving several tens of thousands of solders to protect certain interests, such as the ones Galbraith lists above. The news that the Turkish military is shelling Kurdish positions in Iraq only highlights the potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish conflict that may erupt without the stabilizing presence of our troops. And morally it would seem to be the right thing to do, to protect the Kurds, who have fought for decades to secure some measure of independence. Determining the future strategy towards Iraq is still many, many months away, but the proposals may now be all be moving in generally the same direction: north into Kurdistan.