What’s Next in Iraq?

Dave Shuler asks, “Could someone please explain to me why the various insurgent groups in Iraq will suddenly stop murdering their fellow-citizens, blowing them up with bombs, and gassing them just because American troops have left Iraq?”

The flippant answer, offered by commenter M. Takhallus, is probably right, at least in the short term:

They won’t, of course, but we won’t care. The media will move on when the American forces leave. They’ll be covering Iraq from Kuwait. And we won’t be any more concerned than we are with any of the many worldwide slaughters under way. Iraq will become Darfur — we’ll make noises and do nothing and the few still paying attention will spend their time assigning blame. We will look away, just like we did when North Vietnam took the south and when Pol Pot massacred his own people.

Unfortunately, that approach is not an option in the heart of the Arab Middle East. In yesterday’s Democratic debates in Nevada, Joe Biden hit the nail on the head: “Everybody here today has said we’ve got to get out of Iraq. And we do. But then the question is, what’s next?” he said. “If that civil war metastasizes into a regional war, we’re going to be sending your grandchildren back.”

T.X. Hammes predicted as much in his 2004 book The Sling and the Stone.

Because the nature of the various elements of the ACF [anti-Coalition forces] mens tey can have no unified goal other than the negative one of driving the uNited States out, the ACF cannot have a choerent plan for the political future of Iraq. All elements know that if the United States withdraws before establishing a stable government, they will still have to settle among themselves who will be in power. That struggle will escalate into a civil wr, the consequences of which will have implications far beyond Iraq or even the region’s border. (179)

It may simply be that there are no good options at this point. But simply declaring victory and going home may be the least sustainable among them.

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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.


  1. I had an interesting discussion with a conservative last night. He is the type who would rather cut off his own right arm rather than vote for any of the democratic 2008 candidates. He was arguing that the US should get out of Iraq because they simply aren’t capable of forming a lasting democracy and that the Sunni majority (in all Islam) would then rush to defend the Sunni minority in Iraq, which in turn would pull Iran in to defend the Shiite’s in Iraq. The resulting tar baby brawl would occupy the attention of the various Mideast regimes, keeping the US safe. It is at least hopeful for a good outcome if not entirely coherent.

    I think more likely would be a mass genocide that would make Rwanda look like a picnic. But given the left’s love of those who helped to bring about the Rwanda massacre (e.g. Kofi) it would make sense that they can just conveniently ignore the blood.

    Maybe this is a way to win the carbon reduction prize. If each person averages 8 tons of carbon a year, how many people would you need to slaughter to win the prize?

  2. ken says:

    that approach [ie. leaving Iraq to figure out its own future, make its own history, chose its own path, be free from western meddling*] is not an option in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

    *added to quote for clarity

    So you say.

    But the American people don’t care about your desire to stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong.

    The American people want us out of Iraq. The American people will not support a war based upon lies.

  3. m. takhallus says:

    Less flippant than bitter, actually.

    We chose to do a very hard thing – impose our narrative on Iraq – without ensuring we had the means to do so. One does not accomplish very hard things with just enough force, or a rationale that falls apart at the first hard look, or with civilian administrators who are more closely vetted for their stand on Roe v. Wade than on their fitness for the job.

    Mr. Bush has been in office for six years. Why do we still have essentially the same military we had when Mr. Clinton was in office? If the Right won’t take the hard stands and call for the hard choices to be made what are we to expect of the Left? Four years of war in Iraq before we could manage to replace a manifestly incompetent Secretary of Defense or call for a real increase in force levels? Criminal.

    Almost certainly too late. So, yes, the likelihood (not certainty) is that we’ll make clucking sounds from the sidelines as Iraq disintegrates into a regional war. Will it come around and bite us in the rear? Yes it will.

    Go to war, don’t go to war, but don’t go halfway to war.

  4. cian says:

    YTJ’s comment starts out interesting and ends on the usual tedious tit-for-tat sign off all too common on political blogs.

    There never were any good options. Bush’s father and his administration knew this and so pulled back after the first gulf war. Colin Powell tried to warn the president of this. We are where we were always going to be and the endgame in Iraq, whether we pull out or not, will be slaughter on a scale not seen since the 2nd world war. And not as an unforeseen consequence, but as a direct result of a reckless and unnecessary war.

  5. Wyatt Earp says:

    “Go to war, don’t go to war, but don’t go halfway to war.”

    And therein lies the problem. From the outset, we should have overrun the country with troops. The new proposed troop surge doesn’t go far enough. Send in 100,000 troops, let them take off the kid gloves, and rout those responsible for the chaos there.

    But, pulling out now – with the country in disarray – will accomplish exactly what Desert Storm did . . . very little. And, as Biden said, we will just end up going back in a decade.

    Either finish it. TRULY finish it. Or pull out and practice isolationism. That’s what the libs want anyway.

  6. Hate to be cynical here, but absent US involvment, a Middle East regional war would be a good think for us. They’d be too busy killing each other to be able to plot against us.

  7. M1EK says:

    Have to echo a lot of the above, with this addition:

    Make sure that Cheney’s band of nitwits are never again allowed to be in charge of anything more important than the local dump.

    This should ring even more true if you’re a self-identified Republican. You want independents to vote for you ever again? START by making sure you don’t let the guys who f*cked it up so royally do anything _else_.

  8. anjin-san says:

    m. takhallus’s comments provide an excellent summery of the situation.

    I am reminded of a line from “Apocalypse Now”.

    “Don’t get off the boat. Absolutely F_____king right. Not unless you are going to go all the way”.

    We should not have gone in. After making to unwise decision to go in, we should have gone in so hard that the only thing the other guys would have on their minds would be “how fast can I run away”.

    Having a plan in place for the post-Saddam era might have been a good idea too.

  9. Jim Henley says:

    Saudi Arabia and Lebanon are trying like hell to keep civil war from returning to Lebanon. They’ve got a BIGGER interest in stabilizing Iraq, since there aren’t two or three countries between them and the latter. So maybe there will be a big regional war. Or maybe there won’t.

    What everyone on the mainstream left AND what passes for the right these days resists considering is that we may be the biggest part of the problem. Because that might hurt someone’s feelings, and we can’t have that.

  10. Ken Hoop says:

    Does Russia…did the Soviet Union …have anything to offer in a hypothetical intervention
    in Mexico? Historians will view US intervention in the Middle East from circa 1950 to the present as unwarranted,destabilizing,
    owned by a big-oil/Israeli Lobby combine unbeneficial to most concerned.

  11. Wyatt Earp says:

    Wow. It’s amazing at how many people in this country just doesn’t want to see a win anymore. Truly sad.

  12. RJN says:


    There never was any hope for a “win” in Iraq for anyone, least of all the Iraqis.

    We were neo-conned; the cover story for going into Iraq was always a con. We always were going to Iraq to establish a base to cover Iran and Syria, any other reasons put forth were smoke and mirrors; part of the con.

  13. m. takhallus says:

    Yes, there was a hope for a win. It would have been very hard but not impossible to ram a democracy down their unwilling throats. We have the power. We didn’t use it.

  14. RJN says:

    m. t.,

    No we don’t have the power. It would take 300,000 troops 10 years to make a dent. The only hope is partition, which might work except that we are now looking to subdue Iran. Can you imagine; the good boys of the U.S. are going to work with Iraqi Shi’ah, and make all nice, while the bad boys of the U.S. are bombing and burning Iran, the home of the Shi’ah?

  15. laura says:

    To those who say that is is essential for us to stay until Iraq is stable: if you mean it, then come up with a way to pay for the effort and a way to sustain the necessary troop levels. Otherwise we have no option but to start planning how to leave.

    I am not at all happy with walking out and leaving a mess. However, the current effort is not sustainable indefinitely. We are only a year or so from simply not having the troops to keep the war going.. And there is the other war, the war that was actually against terrorists, the one we had a valid reason for fighting–Afghanistan. The Taliban is reasserting itself there and we do not have the wherewith all for a surge in that country.

    Simply declaring that we are leaving is a more sustainable option than declaring that we are staying with no plan for how to pay for it and no plan for how to supply troops other than recycling the same folks over and over and over.

    A big part of the planning for departure has to be organizing pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in internal terror and death squad attacks on the Sunnis.

    You are right: there is no good solution. Nothing we do is going to leave us with a good feeling about this miserable episode. But we do need to stop acting like winning is an option independent of realistic plans for how to pay for both the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, and how to provide the necessary manpower. Without those realistic plans, we’re going to be leaving no matter how anyone feels about it.

  16. LJD says:

    …we should have gone in so hard that the only thing the other guys would have on their minds would be “how fast can I run away”.

    Actually, that’s exactly what we did.

    There never was any hope for a “win” in Iraq for anyone

    Alas we continue to see the “for the troops” crowd air their laundry. Don’t be so offended next time some one says you never INTENDED for us to win.

  17. LJD says:

    I would add that also disqualifies you (RJN) from speaking on how to win, or if we can win in any forum. You already had your mind made up, regardless of the “facts” as you perceive them.

    BTW, where do you get all of this “insider” military information?

  18. Barry says:

    LJD, he probably got the ‘insider’ information from the same place that *we all* did. From public testemony and statements by generals and military experts – the ones dissed by the neoconmen.

    Wyatt: “Wow. It’s amazing at how many people in this country just doesn’t want to see a win anymore. Truly sad. ”

    Yes, the right-wing in this country *is* sad. They f*cked the war up from before the word ‘go’, continued to f*ck it up to the present day, and will continue to f*ck it up to the end of Bush’s regime.

    And then they’ll have the gall to blame everybody else.

  19. LJD says:

    The inside information I was referring to was a seemingly high degree of what military resources and what lengths of time are required to stabilize Iraq. Not only that, but the assumptions you have all made regarding Iraqi manpower, for the purpose of supporting your defeatist strategy.

    Keep your eyes closed Barry, you might wake up.

  20. anjin-san says:


    Guess you slept thru the first days of the war, when US forces were suprised by the level of resistance they encountered.

    And, if it is as you say, and we did go in so hard, how is it that the other guy has picked himself up of the mat and killed so many of our troops?

  21. Barry says:

    LJD, what did Shinseki say? Hundred*S* of thousands of troops for year*S*, IIRC. And he wasn’t alone.

    Not only did the administration short the troop levels by a factor of 2-4, but they also refused to plan or prepare for anything after the fall of Saddam’s statue. Then, as reality clearly deviated from their assumptions, they refused to deal with that. In fact, most of their action aggravated the situation.

    A day late, a dollar short, from start to finish.