A War That Abhors a Vacuum

By Ben Connable, a major in the Marine Corps (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18/12/06):

THE niceties are up for debate: phased or partial withdrawal from Iraq would entail pulling troops back to their bases across the country, or leapfrogging backward to the nearest international border, or redeploying to bases in nearby countries.

But whatever the final prescription, the debate must include a sober look at the street-level impact of withdrawal. What will become of Iraqi villages, towns and cities as we pull out? Although past is not necessarily prologue, recent experience in Anbar Province may be instructive.

American units have already withdrawn from the western Euphrates River valley — twice, in fact. As the insurgency heated up in early 2004, the Seventh Marine Regiment pulled up stakes and went to fight insurgents in eastern Anbar, leaving the rest of the province in the hands of a battalion of troops. The Marines balanced obvious risk against the possible reward of overwhelming some of the insurgent groups in the east.

The consequences were immediate and bloody. Insurgents assumed control of several towns and villages. They tortured and executed police officers, local politicians, friendly tribal leaders and informants. They murdered contractors who had worked with the Americans or the Iraqi government. They tore down American-financed reconstruction projects and in a few cases imposed an extreme version of Islamic law. Many Iraqi military units collapsed in the absence of United States support.

The insurgents celebrated their self-described victory and exploited the withdrawal for propaganda purposes. Baathist-led insurgents used the opportunity to establish training camps and weapons caches in the farmland and along the river banks while other groups, including Al Qaeda, smuggled in fighters, suicide bombers and money to support operations in Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad. Western Iraq became a temporary haven for criminals, terrorists and thousands of local thugs who made up de facto mini-regimes in the absence of a stabilizing force.

When the Seventh Marines returned to western Anbar it was essentially forced to retake some of the towns it once controlled. Many local Iraqis were openly hostile; the battle for the hearts and minds of the population was set back months, if not years. With the politicians murdered, local civil administration was almost nonexistent and any influence held by the central government was lost.

The Seventh Marine Regiment pulled up stakes again in November 2004 to join the second fight for Falluja. Conscious of the damage done by the earlier withdrawal, the Marines left behind more troops in an effort to stem the inevitable surge of insurgent and criminal gangs; Iraqi forces were not yet ready to assume control.

Despite this Marine presence, the results were similar. What had been rebuilt in the summer crumbled in the fall.

The two withdrawals left the western Euphrates River valley in a shambles. At the end of 2005 the Marines were forced to conduct sweep and clear operations from Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, to the Syrian border town of Husayba. As they pushed west they uncovered hundreds of weapons caches, elaborate insurgent propaganda centers, carefully camouflaged training camps, suicide vehicle factories and complex criminal networks that were feeding a steady stream of money to insurgents and terrorists across the country. Marine units settled back in, spread out and brought attack levels to unprecedented lows.

Since 2005, the situation in Anbar has significantly deteriorated. But as bad as things have become, American and Iraqi forces retain some degree of control in even the most turbulent areas. The border cities of Husayba and Qaim are relatively stable and have effective security and government. Falluja, also stable, is a model for Iraqi-American military cooperation. Advisers are embedded with Iraqi units across the province. American-supported tribes are beginning to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq in the east. Anbar is down but not out, thanks to the American troops along the Euphrates River.

American presence might be likened to a control rod in a nuclear reactor: Leave it in place and the potential energy of the insurgents and criminals is mostly kept in check; remove it and the energy becomes kinetic. Withdrawal of United States presence from any town or city in Anbar will almost certainly lead to the creation of safe havens for western Iraq’s impenetrable snarl of foreign fighters, nationalist insurgents and local thugs. Many abandoned cities and towns would come to closely resemble the Falluja of mid-2004.

If American forces conduct even a phased withdrawal before the full certification of Iraqi Army battalions, those units incapable of sustaining independent operations would be forced to pull back alongside their minders, or collapse as their logistics and fire support lifelines disappeared. Most local police forces would scatter, be co-opted or slaughtered wholesale, as they were in 2004.

Insurgents of all stripes would make the most of the combined American and Iraqi withdrawal, harassing the departing convoys with homemade bombs and small-arms fire. Videos of insurgents dancing in the streets would become prevalent on the Internet and international television. No public relations campaign could succeed in painting an early phased withdrawal as anything but a strategic defeat.

“Redeployed” in large bases far from the enemy centers of gravity, American troops wouldn’t be able to keep insurgent groups from forming semi-conventional units. This pattern has repeated itself countless times across Iraq and follows historic guerrilla-warfare models: insurgents exploit any safe haven to strengthen and train their forces. The longer they are left alone, the stronger they become. As our presence in the countryside diminishes, our ability to gather intelligence and to protect valuable infrastructure, communications lines and friendly tribal areas will deteriorate rapidly.

Should the Iraqi Army stay in place as American units withdraw, the American advisers embedded within these units probably would have to be removed, leaving nobody to control air support, coordinate unit pay from Baghdad, supervise the monthly convoys to take troops home on leave, prevent gross violations of the Geneva Convention or shore up shaky leadership. Given patient support, most of these units eventually will develop the capacity to conduct independent operations. However, some adviser teams already report that their Iraqi counterparts have said they intend to desert if the Americans leave too soon.

Although Anbar may be the most violent province in Iraq per capita, it is relatively free of the sectarian tensions found in Baghdad and the center. The confusion caused by withdrawal would be compounded as religious, militia and political loyalties divided inadequately prepared military and police units. Full-scale ethnic killing would become a very real possibility.

For some, the collapse of Iraqi society into Hobbesian mayhem is inevitable no matter how many American troops remain on the ground. A few argue that disintegration of the Iraqi state actually would bring about the national catharsis that seems so elusive today — that absolute civil war would be a greater good.

This cold calculus ignores the very real impact of an American withdrawal on the people we now protect. Any debate that does not consider the bloody reality we would leave in our wake does a disservice to the people of Iraq and the troops who have fought so hard to defend them.