Evacuating Iraqi Refugees

A front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post has highlighted the need to make plans for evacuating Iraqis if and when we withdraw American forces.

The American ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan C. Crocker, has asked the Bush administration to take the unusual step of granting immigrant visas to all Iraqis employed by the U.S. government in Iraq because of growing concern that they will quit and flee the country if they cannot be assured eventual safe passage to the United States.

[…]

“Our [Iraqi staff members] work under extremely difficult conditions, and are targets for violence including murder and kidnapping,” Crocker wrote Undersecretary of State Henrietta H. Fore. “Unless they know that there is some hope of an [immigrant visa] in the future, many will continue to seek asylum, leaving our Mission lacking in one of our most valuable assets.”

The story cites “fears that terrorists may infiltrate through refugee channels” as the major obstacle but there are others. Regardless, deciding whom to grant asylum to will not be easy.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that about 2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside the country so far, and that an estimated 2.2 million others have fled to Syria, Jordan and other neighbors, where they threaten to overwhelm schools and housing, destabilize host governments and provide a recruiting ground for radical unrest. Each month, an additional 60,000 Iraqis flee their homes, the U.N. agency said.

Overall estimates of the number of Iraqis who may be targeted as collaborators because of their work for U.S., coalition or foreign reconstruction groups are as high as 110,000. The U.N. refugee agency has estimated that 20,000 Iraqi refugees need permanent resettlement.

Fester hopes that a “large, broad, bipartisan base of support” rallies to create pressure to make this happen and “that we have a moral obligation to help those who have risked so much to help us.”

Of course, many argue that’s why we shouldn’t leave Iraq and abandon its people to the thugs. Certainly, tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis have risked something in siding with us against the local militias. One can argue that the “translators, intepretors, construction program managers, laundry women, truck drivers and cooks” under our direct employ risked more, I suppose, but what about the people who signed up for work in the Iraqi security forces despite knowing merely standing in line to do so made them a target for the terrorists? Where do we draw the line?

I’m inclined to do so generously, given our role in creating the mess. But that raises another question: does sponsoring an exodus of skilled people from Iraq merely compound our error? How can Iraq rebuild itself without these people?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. fester says:

    James — thanks for the thoughtful response first. I want to respond on a couple of points.

    1) But that raises another question: does sponsoring an exodus of skilled people from Iraq merely compound our error? How can Iraq rebuild itself without these people?

    The brain drain of the professional middle class has been ongoing and severe for the past couple of years already. These are the individuals who had resources to flee to Jordan or Syria and reasonably employable skills once they got there. They are also the key targets in a system disruption campaign as they are the mobile human capital that could allow for systemic reconstruction. They are targets no matter what and they know it. And all of this has occurred with between 120,000 and 160,000 US troops in country.

    2) How nationalized are the security forces v. expressions of local and sectarian group loyalties that happen to be drawing a paycheck signed by the same guy? Most of the reporting on the Iraqi Army shows it is locally recruited for half the divisions, and very sectarian in its focus. The same applies for the police forces. The national government forces are better dressed militias.

  2. … given our role in creating the mess.

    Did we really create the mess? I thought it it was all the Baathist insurgents, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda wannabees, Iran, and many others who were murdering people left and right to sow discord and choas that are at fault. Is it the mere presence of Americans, or the patrolling of dangerous Iraqi streets, or time spent building schools, or what exactly that lays the cuplability at our feet?

    I understand we invaded Iraq and deposed a dangerous dictator. Since very few people really want to go back to the salad days of Saddam Hussein, presumably any blame that attaches to us comes after Saddam was deposed. It would have been heinous to turn and walk away immediately, though the result might well have been what we will face if the anti-war crowd gets its wish and we abandon Iraq now as well. As Senator Obama has said, stopping a genocide there is not a reason to stay, so maybe we should have left immediately after Saddam was deposed.

    With hindsight, or perhaps General Shinseki’s foresight, maybe we should have had more troops there after the three week war was over. Or maybe more of the civilized world should have helped, and that would have made a tremendous difference, not only in sheer numbers, but also on the vaunted political and diplomatic fronts. If we are going to so easily and generously laddle blame, what share of the blame should be apportioned to the cheap political sniping predicated more on anti-Americanism that pacifism from the sidelines by our friends both at home and abroad?

    Of course, we would have been blamed for all the bad things that happened there either way (remember our culpability for killing 500,00 Iraqi children with sanctions?), so maybe we just have to accept that everything is our fault. But even having accepted this blame, should we not still adhere to our best interests moving forward and the best interests of the people whom we are alleged to have wronged? The perfect remains the enemy of the good. Are we going to try and make things better or are we going to quit because we can’t make them perfect.

    I apologize for drifting somewhat afield, but sometimes it is necessary to challenge what everybody just knows to be true. As to your original post, we should be generous in allowing Iraqi’s to emigrate. Of course, I believe that is true for more than just Iraqi’s.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Fester: Good points, to be sure. Certainly, though, evacuating an additional 100,000 people would exacerbate these problems.

    Charles: We opened up the Pandora’s box that turned Iraq into a killing field. To the extent that we did so promising to make a better life for the Iraqis, instill democracy, and so forth, what ensued is our responsibility.

  4. James, I think we are pretty much in agreement on it being our responsibility. My only real issue is conflating responsibility with culpability.

  5. Andy says:

    I understand we … deposed a dangerous dictator.

    I don’t think this is particularly accurate.

  6. davod says:

    Andy:

    What’s not accurate?

  7. fester says:

    James — responding to your 11:05 —

    What is the human capital profile for that 100,000 — how many are guns for hire, low skilled day laborers (cooks, washers, truck drivers etc), medium skilled (translators) and very high skilled (civil engineers, doctors, managers).

    I think that the very high skilled population has already been decimated by a combination of random death, targeted assaination and emigration. Offering visas and a plausible path out to 80,000 cooks and laborers will have minimal impact on any systemic rebuilding attempt but could fulfill whatever moral calculas and culpability one may believe that the US has towards them.

  8. James Joyner says:

    What is the human capital profile for that 100,000

    Honestly, I haven’t a clue.

    I think that the very high skilled population has already been decimated by a combination of random death, targeted assaination and emigration.

    Could well be.

    Offering visas and a plausible path out to 80,000 cooks and laborers will have minimal impact on any systemic rebuilding attempt but could fulfill whatever moral calculas and culpability one may believe that the US has towards them.

    I agree that we owe it to them. I’m not sure that’ll make up for the carnage that follows what seems to be our inevitable exodus, though.

  9. fester says:

    James — I think the biggest disagreement here is our assessment of the probability trees as to whether or not maintaining large scale US forces in Iraq for X years will significantly reduce the carnage, or merely stretch out the timeframe for roughly equivilant carnage to occur.

    I think pretty much no matter what the US does carnage will occur, and therefore my objective is to minimize US costs as there are very, very, few side benefits in my mind of keeping 150,000 US troops in Iraq that have minimal probability of achieving any significant strategic objectives.

  10. Eric Martin says:

    I agree with Fester.

    Civil wars such as those gripping Iraq come to a resolution only through victory of one side (unlikely here, given the parity of forces) or when each side is exhausted enough from fighting that negotiated settlement becomes more attractive. Our presence in Iraq isn’t going to achieve either of those triggers (unless we foolishly choose to align with one side in service of the others’ annihilation), just prolong the process.

    In a sense, our presence has made the costs of continued fighting seem manageable. There is, though, an outside chance that our departure will clarify the costs for the warring parties and cause them to reconsider their options. If that doesn’t persuade the combatants, though, our continued presence won’t either.

    It will mean that they have crossed the rubicon, and are heading down a destructive path that we cannot divert.

    This James Fearon piece makes a compelling case for much of the above if you haven’t seen it already.