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Tom Hayden's Iraq Exit Plan

An Exit Plan from Iraq
By Tom Hayden

Editor's Note: This draft is highly referenced and footnoted. The footnotes and endnotes appear at the end of the draft.

"We have no exit strategy, only a victory strategy."
- Sec. Donald Rumsfeld[i]

The time has come to push for an exit strategy from Iraq. If the Administration stubbornly refuses, then members of Congress and civic society must lead the way.

The opportunity for peace talks is at hand. Despite the Administration's rhetoric to the contrary, interviews with senior military officers suggest that "it is only a matter of time before the Pentagon sets a timetable of its own for withdrawal", according to a definite New York Times essay by John Burns on June 19.

Last week the Bush Administration admitted to low-level talks with intermediaries claiming to represent the insurgents, described as a "classic divide-and-conquer strategy" in the LA Times.[ii] Nevertheless, the US breached its policy of shunning contact with terrorists by holding conversations with Ansar al-Sunna representatives blamed for killing 22 in a dining hall at Mosul during Christmas last year.[1]

More importantly, last week 82 members of the elected Iraqi parliament signed an open letter calling for a timetable for US withdrawal.[iii] They further condemned their own government for prolonging the occupation "without consulting representatives of the people who have the mandate for such a decision." This was a significant development, emerging as it did from one-third of the members of a parliamentary body essentially created by the United States. But it was not noted in the US media, nor was there any sign of an American response.

In addition, Ayham al-Samarie, a former Iraqi electricity minister once described as a "hero" in a White House visit, has established the "National Council for Unity and Construction of Iraq" to broker peace talks with resistance fighters demanding a US withdrawal timetable. [iv]

We must break the myth that the Bush Administration is fighting for "all Iraqis", and acknowledge the fact that large numbers of Iraqis want the US set a timetable for departure. In January of this year, a survey published in the New York Times showed 82 percent of Sunnis and 69 percent of Shiites favored a near-term withdrawal.[v] Then, just before the January Iraqi election, US intelligence sources warned of "grim" news that the winning faction would press for a withdrawal timetable.[vi] After the election, one hundred thousand Shiites marched in Baghdad demanding withdrawal.[vii] Even the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who led uprisings against the American forces, has entered the political process, saying, "we cannot face political war in a military action; the military war is to be faced with a military war, but the political war is to be faced with itself." [viii] It was the refusal of the newly-elected leadership (and their American backers) to follow through on the electoral mandate for peace that led to the recent letter from 82 parliamentarians.

A dialogue should begin immediately with these Iraqi parliamentarians, through congressional initiatives, citizen diplomacy, or both. Members of Congress could seek to meet them in a safe environment such as Turkey or Jordan, or they could be invited to testify in public hearings in Washington.

The Bush Administration is too wedded to what Sec. Rumsfeld calls a "victory strategy" to consider political negotiations as anything but a threat to its plans for permanent dominance. Its recent contacts with resistance representatives are only token at this point, aimed mostly at luring a few tribal leaders into acquiescence. The reason the Bush Administration lacks an exit strategy is not an administrative oversight. It appears that the Administration always expected to establish a permanent outpost in Baghdad after military victory, as further examination of the Downing Street memos (or other documents) may reveal. The Administration's hubris has now become its vulnerable Achilles' heel.

Public opinion in both America and Iraq is a factor not to be denied or ignored. An Administration that refuses to adopt a meaningful exit will find itself isolated sooner than it expects. A serious effort at peace diplomacy started by Congress and civic society is the only way to provoke the Administration to a debate about whether America needs an exit strategy and ultimately, an end to the war and occupation.

Just as the Fulbright hearings opened an alternative to the Vietnam War, Congressional hearings on an exit strategy can begin the process of disengagement from a prospective military quagmire in Iraq.

A possible exit strategy considered

The decision to pursue peace talks with the Iraqi resistance is the first step in a process that will be lengthy, involve risks, and will require space for participation by multiple parties. What this paper proposes, therefore, is the importance of making initial contacts, and letting the final blueprint emerge from a process.

However, it is not necessary to start with a blank slate or await the initiative of others. Peacemaking follows discernible patterns, such as those described in the following scenario.

Negotiated political settlements are possible if all parties perceive that the war is at a stalemate, that victories have been achieved, and that there is little to be gained and much to be risked from a prolonged conflict. Only then can struggle can be shifted to the political realm, sometimes in tandem with a focused military approach. (As al-Sadr candidly says, "each period of time has its own necessities, and now I see that we face a political and cultural war...the military war is to be faced with a military war, but the political war is to be faced with itself.")

Whether the war has reached a state of stalemate is unclear, especially since stalemates rarely are admitted. Certainly Pentagon figures and news accounts indicate that Senator Kennedy is correct in describing a "quagmire". Estimates of American "victory" range from two to ten years. More Americans have been killed since last June 28 - 890 - than during a similar time period from the invasion of March 2003.[2] Average daily attacks by insurgents rose from 45 in June 2004 to 70 by May 2005.[3] US casualties from bomb attacks reached "new heights" in May 2005, 700 incidents involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[4] Insurgents are waging "precise attacks" on Baghdad's fuel supplies.[5] [6] While Dick Cheney was claiming the insurgency was in its "last throes", top commanders were testifying that the insurgency's overall strength was "about the same." [7] The average hours of electricity declined from June 2004 to June 2005 from ten hours daily to 9.4. [8] Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel ways the war is being lost. [9]

It is more difficult to interpret how the resistance sees its efforts. They control large areas of the country, and come and go in contested areas. Baghdad itself is described as "effectively enemy territory."[10] Their military advantage over the fledgling Iraqi security forces is not disputed. They may well be confident of victory, and even plan a final offensive against the Green Zone itself. If they are right, the US needs to plan for a responsible withdrawal to avoid a humiliating repeat of the Vietnam war's ending.

More likely, however, a majority of the resistance believe they can defeat the US "strategically", that is, thwart the US-controlled occupation, without being able to drive the 140,000 US troops out of their country. They also recognize that eight million Iraqis voted in the January 30 election, revealing a popular sentiment for a political solution. Therefore elements of the resistance are supportive of the quiet peace gestures of the past few months.

The precedent of occasionally ceding territory and local control to rebel militias, including former members of the Republican Guard in Falluja, the Badr Corps and the Dawa Army in southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad, and the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq.[11]

But what about the jihadists, the foreign fighters, the Al Qaeda militants? Are they not sworn to war without end? To answer this question is difficult, and may only be revealed through events on the ground. But the promised removal of US ground troops and the end of occupation would deprive even the most militant holy warriors of their main justification to fight. They would become isolated among an Iraqi population engaged in the politics of reconstruction. They might become embedded in areas of Iraq, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or rechannel their jihad to other battlefronts.

Both sides in conflict resolution need definitions of victory they can claim with dignity. The key for the US is having removed Saddam Hussein and set in motion an electoral process in which millions of Iraqis voted. The key for the resistance is having fought the mighty US to a standstill and made the occupation untenable. Seeking to achieve a maximum victory by military means - a neo-conservative paradise or a caliphate of military mullahs - must be acknowledged internally as folly.

The goal for now is to establish multiple tracks through which settlement scenarios can be discussed, allowing plenty of time for setbacks, miscommunications, adjustments to the needs of all parties, and the like. This could be an independent forum on peace and reconciliation in which all parties could be present without having to renounce any existing loyalties. In such a network context, informal diplomacy could naturally emerge.

To contribute to the process, the US would declare at the outset it has no strategic, economic, or diplomatic interest in Iraq. It should unilaterally end offensive operations in key Sunni areas and return troops to barracks, stating a general commitment to military withdrawal and the end of occupation in the context of a negotiated settlement.

This would be a painful and bitter decision for the Bush Administration and for many military families. The truth, however, is that it is folly to believe that the US government can gain through negotiations what it has lost on the battlefield, and it is immoral, dishonest and counter-productive to keep sending young Americans to die in a quagmire. Just as the first Bush Administration decided in 1991 to limit its political aims to what it achieved on the battlefield, so this Bush Administration has to choose between realism and the costs of a deeper quagmire. Faced with the stark reality, it may well choose to "stay the course" or even escalate, which would only postpone and worsen the agony of later withdrawal.

It should be remembered that the US bargaining power is enormous if our government really is prepared to withdraw and end the occupation. Behind the scenes it would be possible to discuss several key US interests, including: a dignified rather than messy withdrawal, continued access to oil supplies, and assurances that a new Iraqi state would prevent jihadists from launching attacks on Israel from its territory. Any delay in pursuing a negotiated settlement could weaken the ultimate American influence over the disposition of these issues.

On the insurgent side, skirmishes or even a mini-civil war might break out over whether to end the conflict with the Americans. More likely, however, the vast majority of the nationalist resistance would respond positively to a scenario of withdrawal. Once agreed, the insurgents (and related militias) would have to maintain cease fires in the territories they control, with assurances that they will not be subject to US attack. Areas such as Anwar Province and large swaths of Baghdad would immediately come under administrative control of existing anti-occupation groups, mosques, and civic associations. Elements of the US-backed Iraqi government might be forced to leave the country for other capitals. However, the survival of opportunists such as Ahmed Chalabi suggests a possible future even for former collaborators. Chalabi has been meeting with the Muslim Scholars Association about "cooperating together to end the foreign presence in Iraq so [the insurgents] do not feel they have to fight to defend the country against foreign occupation." [12]

A new Iraqi government would have to be re-conceived and re-organized to permit full expression of the popular desire for withdrawal and ending the occupation. It would be opened to representatives of the insurgency who agreed to support cease-fires, based on a new power-sharing formula. Each of the three major groups - Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd - would be entitled to a baseline of representation equal to their population, both nationally and regionally. Each would be able to exercise some sort of interim veto power over measures affecting their geographic security, local tribal arrangements and and cultural integrity, while being delegated basic control of services and policing functions in their own territory.

Most or all prisoners of war would be given time served, amnestied and released. Abu Ghraib prison would be torn down.

The UN would be an appropriate body to be charged with oversight of the short-term transition to the new government, or the task could be delegated to an ad hoc alliance of interested nations (like the "quartet" in the Israeli-Palestinian case).

Serious unilateral breaches might lead to recommendations by the UN monitor of temporary suspension from the new government or other penalties.

The new Iraqi constitution would establish that the resources and economy of Iraq belong to the sovereign people of Iraq, and all the Bremer neo-liberal economic decrees, making Iraq a free trade zone for American banks and corporations, would be terminated for reconsideration. The constitution would establish the right of the people through their state to choose their path of economic development, exploitation of the nation's resources, and preservation of Iraq's cultural heritage. [13]

The US would guarantee reconstruction funding - a "Marshall Plan" - through an international body that would be formed after consultations with surrounding countries, the EU and the UN. Final control over public and private funds for reconstruction would be with Iraqi authorities. All Halliburton-style contracts would become void and renegotiated. The alienation of the Iraqi business class would be reduced, and the percentage of Iraqis working on reconstruction projects would climb from its dismal one percent in June 2004.[14]

Needless to say, these economic reforms would provoke howls on K Street among lobbyists for corporations with billions of dollars in contracts. The price tag for buying out these contracts could be steep. But perpetuating the scandalous cronyism among US contractors is an albatross around the Administration's neck as well. Rep. Waxman's investigations reveal nearly one billion dollars in taxpayer overpayments to Halliburton alone. Bechtel is responsible for blackouts in Baghdad partly because it "ignores pleas by Iraqi engineers for spare parts"; MCI is responsible for cell phones, although it had no experience in building cell networks before Iraq; Bush contributors are commonly noted among the war's profiteers. As Bremer himself, a manager partner for Kissinger Associates, said in 2003, globalization has "immediate negative consequences for many [but also] the creation of unprecedented wealth." [15]
A majority of Americans show no sympathy for these self-interested corporate contractors, and thus elite opinion, rather than public opinion, will be the obstacle to relinquishing the profits of war. Reconstruction costs for a four-year period, estimated by the World Bank, were $55 billion, almost half the military cost for a single year. [16]

As a result of the US announcing no strategic interest, a timetable for withdrawal, and Iraqi sovereignty over its economic future, the present violent contradiction between the occupier and occupied in Iraq would begin to dissolve. The remaining antagonism between ethnic/religious groups would be cushioned by proportional representation, veto mechanisms, and the plan for a Marshall Plan.

A note on the Irish Peace Process Model.

There are various models on which conflict resolution models can be based, including the "road map" regarding the Palestinian-Israel conflict. But my own direct experience comes from ten years of observing close-up the Irish peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In that war, another result of British colonialism, it was said that the parties were atavistic, religious fanatics, so deeply mired in sectarian violence that the British had to remain as "peacekeepers". Over thirty years, however, the war between Irish republicans and the British Crown became a stalemate. The British recognized they couldn't defeat the IRA insurgency, and the IRA that they couldn't drive the British off the island. The settlement allowed all sides to declare a victory. The IRA guerrillas remained undefeated and supported by a large segment of public opinion. The British could claim that they saved the Empire and protected their clients, the unionists and loyalists, from forced acceptance of a unitary Irish state with a catholic majority. The process shifted from war to politics. A forum on peace and reconciliation was created, as mentioned earlier. The British troops went back to barracks and still remain there, largely for symbolic reasons. The IRA went on cease-fire but never turned over its weapons. Civil society mechanisms on investment, civil rights, equality and police reform were established. A transitional state was created that was bi-national in character, with nationalists free to reject the Crown and loyalists free to call themselves British. The government included proportional representation, mutual veto powers, and cross-border institutions for the first time. The British remain the major contributor to the northern budget. The republicans are making political progress pushing for a united Ireland, Ian Paisley refuses to sit with them, and elections are suspended currently - but the killings have dropped dramatically and people are free to live out their identities for the first time in 80 years (the partition of Ireland and the occupation of Iraq occurred at basically the same time in British imperial history.) Northern Ireland has transitioned from a hot war to a cold peace, enough for this generation perhaps, while leaving the future open.

Of course there are differences between Iraq and Ireland. (thankfully, the Irish have no oil and therefore are not "strategic"). But the similarities are striking, even down to the current British alliance with the US in its former imperial possession. A very important parallel is between the large constituency of Irish-Americans who campaigned for a peaceful united Ireland, including political pressure on the Clinton Administration, and the equally large constituency of peace and justice advocates involved today in grass-roots activism and politics. (Irish America is estimated to be 22 million people, slightly less than the number of voters who favored US withdrawal from Iraq in the 2004 American election.). The Bush Administration must be mindful of the restive home front as it pursues its imperial dreams abroad. Already a majority of American voters believe the Iraq War was unwarranted; military recruitment is proving almost impossible; the budget cost of one billion dollars per week - a rate which would pay for health insurance for 46 million Americans - is riling domestic constituencies. America's profound isolation from its traditional allies is a matter of voter concern, as is the squandering of our country's moral reputation by recurrent prison torture scandals.

In 1991, a small ground of Irish-Americans, with long experience in Northern Ireland, lobbied then-candidate Bill Clinton to name a peace envoy and open contacts with representatives of the Irish Republican Army. He agreed and, over the objections of his own bureaucracy, moved down a path that led to his finest foreign policy achievement, the Good Friday Agreement.

That history should be kept in mind as the "realists" claim today that peace is impossible in Iraq. Let the process begin, and let history be the judge.

[1] London Sunday Times, June 26, 2005

[2] data from Associated Press, USA Today

[3] data from Associated Press, USA Today

[4] New York Times, June 21, 2005

[5] New York Times, June 21, 2005

[6] New York Times, Feb. 20, 2005.

[7] New York Times, June 24, 2005

[8] data from Associated Press, USA Today.

[9] New York Times, Jan. 20, 2005

[10] New York Times, Jan. 20, 2005

[11] See "U.S. Conceding Rebels Control Regions of Iraq", New York Times, Sept. 8, 2004, and "Failing to Disband Militias, US Moves to Accept Them", New York Times, May 25, 2004.

[12] see the important article by Vietnam diplomatic historian Gareth Porter, "The Exit Strategy", on Alternet, Mar. 18, 2005. Porter cites Agence-France Press for the statement by Chalabi.

[13] It is not clear whether the Bremer decrees have legitimacy or whether they must be adopted by a new Iraqi government. They include (#39) a "transition...from a centrally planned economy to a market economy", including privatization of Iraq's 200 state-owned enterprises, 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses, a ban on preferences from locally-owned companies, and tax-free remittances of all profits.LA Times op-ed, "The Hand-Over That Wasn't", August 5, 2004.

[14] Figures on Iraqis employed on reconstruction projects in June 2004 from Phyllis Bennis and Institute for Policy Studies task force, "Paying the Price, The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War", June 24, 2004.

[15] See Naomi Klein, "Downsizing in Disguise", Alternet, June 5, 2003; LA Times, "War Boosters Do Related Business", July 14, 2004; Paul Krugman, "Who's Sordid Now?", Sept. 30, 2003. "Bush Got $500,000 from Companies That Got Contracts, Study Finds", in New York Times, Oct. 31, 2003. Bremer "discussed the need to privatize government-run factories with such fervor that his voice cut through the din of the cargo hold", in Paul Krugman, New YHork Times, June 29, 2004.

[16] $3 billion for agriculture and water resources, $3.5 billion for environment, $7.2 billion for health, education and job creation; $32 billion for all infrastructure, $5 billion for security/police, and $4.1 billion for other. World Bank figures in New York Times, June 28, 2004. See also Phyllis Bennis and Institute for Policy Studies task force, "Paying the Price, The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War", June 24, 2004.

[i] New York Times, April 13, 2005

[ii] New York Times, May 22, 2005

July,4 , 2005

[iii] The Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 19, 2005

[iv] Associated Press, June 29, 2005; LA Times, June 30, 2005

[v] New York Times, Feb. 21, 2005

[vi] New York Times, Jan. 19, 2005

[vii] New York Times, April 10, 2005


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