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Iraq: The Case for Withdrawal

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week, we're hearing different answers to a major question for 2006: What to do in Iraq. Yesterday, we heard the arguments for staying. Maybe this is a sign of the difficulty of the problem. Some of the same experts who made the case for staying can also see the arguments for getting out. NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam has the case for withdrawal.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

By most accounts, Bush administration officials believe that the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be relatively quick. For more than two-and-a-half years on, the US military is mired in violence created primarily by an unrelenting insurgency. Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, says the presence of US troops and their behavior have helped stoke rather than quell the insurgency.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): The kinds of things that have been counterproductive are some of the most aggressive forms of counterinsurgency tactics--the house-to-house searches, the patrols in the cities--anything that really generates the kind of hostility and animosity towards the US that we've seen grow.

NORTHAM: The Iraq insurgency is a particularly complex one, says Colonel T.X. Hammes, a former Marine, and author of a book on Iraq, called "The Sling and the Stone." The insurgency involves Sunnis, Baathists, Shiites and foreigners, sometimes fighting alongside each other and sometimes fighting against each other. Even if it was straightforward, Hammes says that history has shown you cannot defeat an insurgency by simply killing insurgents.

Colonel T.X. HAMMES (Former Marine): Keep in mind, that recent insurgencies have lasted decades. And the Palestinians have been at it since '68. Afghanistan won against the Soviets; ended it 10 years because the Soviets quit and went home. Chechen is closing in on 10 years now. Algeria was 10 years, and, again, it's 10 years because the outside power finally goes home.

NORTHAM: Very few suggest that the United States should pack up and leave tomorrow, but the seemingly intractable insurgency is giving weight to the argument that the US should begin disengaging. The violence has prevented reconstruction in some parts of the country. More than 2,100 US troops have died. There's concern the insurgency could spin out of control and cause many more American casualties, says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): If you see federalism split the country in ways which make it obvious that we can't hold it together in any united way, there'll be serious questions about whether we should stay. And if it should explode into a more serious form of civil war, we can't force the Iraqis to reach accommodation or to work with each other.

NORTHAM: Edward Luttwak, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Iraqis understand their problems better than anyone else and will have to solve them on their own.

Mr. EDWARD LUTTWAK (Center for Strategic and International Studies): I'm not sure that countries can evolve from A to B without going through certain processes. Imagine if foreigners had come to North America to stop the American Civil War. Fact is that the Iraqis do have to work out these differences and find a natural equilibrium.

NORTHAM: Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the US needs to make the Iraqis understand that American troops will not be there forever. Gelb says so far, that hasn't happened.

Mr. LESLIE GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): I think it has to be clear that we are moving out; otherwise, the Iraqis have no real incentives to pick up the burden of self-defense. And President Bush's position, which is `as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down,' gives them no real incentive to stand up.

NORTHAM: It takes time to rebuild Iraq's army, its security and police forces. There have been improvements, particularly with the army, but Malley says that doesn't guarantee anything.

Mr. MALLEY: You could train Iraqi troops as much and for as long as you want, if their loyalty doesn't go to the nation, to the state, but goes instead to sectarian groups, ethnic groups, militias, then it doesn't matter how well-trained they are in terms of military expertise.

NORTHAM: Iraq is in the first throes of democracy and the recent election has already produced widespread recriminations and bickering. The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Cordesman says the election will also be a litmus test for the United States.

Mr. CORDESMAN: One way or another, this political process almost has to work or fail during the course of 2006. We don't have a fallback to having Iraqi forces work. We don't know what to do next if the Iraqi army and security forces and police can't be made to work in the way that we're currently planning.

NORTHAM: While the election could produce a viable government that would eventually allow the US to leave Iraq, it could also accelerate a departure, says Cordesman.

Mr. CORDESMAN: It's now fully sovereign. If you had the wrong kind of Shiite leadership, it might well simply conclude that the US should leave, or it might set conditions for the US staying that we would find unacceptable.

NORTHAM: Then there's the political will in the United States. Support for the war has been consistently waning. And mid-term elections coming up in 2006 may prove to be the strongest argument to start disengaging from Iraq. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: So that's the case for withdrawal. Yesterday, Jackie told us the case for staying in Iraq, and you can hear that story at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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