Dr N. Janardhan
Program Manager, Gulf-Asia Relations
Editor, 'Gulf in the Media'
Despite Washington's most recent reiteration that there will be no dramatic shifts in the US policy toward Iraq, not many except US President George W. Bush's coterie know what exactly awaits the war-torn country. But many of the 'Plan B' or "course correction" recommendations doing the rumor rounds in the United States pose more questions than provide answers.
According to some of the scenarios that have emerged from the 'Plan B' leaks, Iraq could either be partitioned into three ethnic regions or the United States could withdraw troops in a phased manner "with some remaining in neighboring countries to deal with major threats" or the US-trained Iraqi army could stage a coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and replace him with a "strongman", with Washington's tacit approval.
The preparations for the 'cut and run' strategy is already emerging with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's spin -- "The biggest mistake would be not to pass things over to the Iraqis. It's their country. They're going to have to govern it. They're going to have to provide security for it. And they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later."
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., alluded to the plan by suggesting that Iraqi forces would be ready to take over security responsibility from the Americans in late 2007 or early 2008.
An option that even the Democrats are willing to consider is the one outlined by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- a joint declaration by the US and Iraqi governments on a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, followed by an international conference on stabilizing Iraq and a proactive economic reconstruction.
While Washington attempts to spin all its interventionist policies as being in the welfare of the conflict zone in question, it is, in fact, very much motivated by domestic and political factors. The invasion of Iraq was aimed at consolidating the Republican stronghold ahead of the 2004 presidential elections by propagating the post-9/11 fear psychosis among Americans. Likewise, the ongoing debate about the change of American tack in Iraq is conditioned by the high rate of American troop casualties and the resultant declining stock of the Republicans ahead of the congressional elections in November and the build-up to the 2008 presidential elections. It could well be that Plan B is a mere dummy ploy to fool the American voters into believing that the Bush administration is open to admitting mistakes and taking corrective measures. Depending on the outcome of next month's elections, Plan B will be either selectively operationalized or completely dumped.
While Washington failed in its counter-terror strategies in Iraq, it has succeeded in keeping its own territory free from terror attacks during the last five years. The Republicans have successfully portrayed themselves as the best defenders against terror at home. The 2004 presidential elections exemplified this approach and the results confirmed its success. It appears that the same tactics are being replayed ahead of next month's elections and, depending on its results, quite possibly in 2008 too.
Currently, the security situation in Iraq is so grave that at least 100 Iraqis are being killed every day in worsening sectarian violence and the US could end up losing more than 100 soldiers just in October (96 were killed in 26 days), the highest one-month toll for the Americans since the war began in 2003.
Linking the likely change in Iraq strategy to US politics is the fact that the official recommendations by the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, will be made public only after November 7.
While analyzing the alternative scenarios, there is little doubt that the division of Iraq is a perfect recipe for disaster, one that was repeatedly highlighted by several countries in the Middle East to discourage the US from invading Iraq. At a time when the region is already worried about the repercussions of a defiant Iran and stronger Hezbollah in Lebanon, another exclusively Shiite entity in Iraq is seen as ominous by Iraq's Sunni neighbors in the Gulf. The Kurdish question will open a separate front of problems for Iraq's other neighbors. Further, if Iran is indeed the culprit behind the instability in Iraq, the plan to facilitate disintegration of Iraq along ethnic lines is also most beneficial to Iran. What happens then to the argument of rendering Iran's mullahs weak by having a democratic Iraq?
The partition plan acquired an air of reality when a law allowing regions to form federal entities from existing provinces was passed by the Iraqi parliament on October 11. Though 18 months remain before the law becomes effective, Kurds rejoiced as Sunni MPs and the Muqtada Al-Sadr bloc of the powerful Shiite alliance boycotted the vote in protest.
The irony is that withdrawal of troops was a consistent request from many Arab quarters since the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime. Apart from deliberate external attempts to fuel instability, conduct a proxy war against the US and gain political leverage in a power vacuum, it is certainly relevant to also classify insurgency in Iraq as a form of resistance against foreign occupation. Had parts of this option -- perhaps a phased withdrawal or at least a timetable -- been considered earlier, it may have served the interests of all concerned -- Iraq, its neighbors and the US.
At a time when more troops are needed to quell the violence, the possibility of the situation in Iraq improving as a result of the US withdrawing its troops and leaving it to Iraqis to settle matters is just as unlikely as terror suffering a severe setback by killing or capturing Osama bin Laden or his deputies.
Nothing is more hypocritical than the military coup option. Even a remote consideration of this option violates the spirit of the US's Freedom Agenda launched in 2003 to propagate democratic transformation in the Middle East. While Iraq was touted as the ideal starting ground, further consideration of the coup option would imply thumbs down to ballots and perpetration of a rule by bullets. This would also expose the US's pre-war justification to overthrow the Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in favor of democracy.
Three years after the US stood firm in its conviction that it was possible to invade Iraq, oust the Baath Party and implant democracy without anticipating a crisis of the kind that currently prevails, there is little doubt that it stands defeated. It took Washington three years to admit that Iraq is a possible parallel to the 1968 Tet offensive that prompted loss of support for the Vietnam War among Americans. Though Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the State Department's bureau of Near Eastern affairs, withdrew his statement in 24 hours, it took someone in the administration three years to admit that the US had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq. And, it took three years for the US to seriously consider alternate plans when their main plank fell apart. Thus, in planning an alternate approach now, can the US be sure that it has a workable plan or will it wait for another three years to decide if there is yet another way out of the likely mess?