The situation is bad and possibly deteriorating. In spite of open elections with wide participation, and in spite of the promulgation of a federal-type constitution that controversially privileges Islam, attacks are on the increase and the number of American soldiers already killed in 2005 is almost double the number for last year. Suicide bombers, often recruited from beyond the borders but also generated internally, demonstrate increasing ruthlessness and sophistication. Kidnapping and hostage-taking suggest an overlap between jihadism and organized crime. Warlordism and sectarianism remain toxic. No obvious end is in sight. The situation in Afghanistan, in other words, is giving rise to mounting concern.
Not enough concern, however, to prompt many calls for a date for withdrawal from Kabul. Is anything to be learned from the difference here? Cindy Sheehan and her co-thinkers do, of course, call for an American retreat from Afghanistan, just as the hard core of the anti-war movement always opposed an intervention there in the first place, but if we take the “withdrawal” argument to have moved to the so-called mainstream since the confused, tear-stained, but stirring speech of Rep. John Murtha, then what are the chief distinctions between the two cases?
If, as Murtha says, the presence of American troops is the cause not the cure for Islamist “insurgency,” then the logic would be the same in all cases: withdrawal at least to a more distant point where (presumably) their presence would not incite mayhem. Leaving aside the question of what geographical point that would be (U.S. ships were targeted in Yemen before 9/11 and in the Jordanian Gulf of Aqaba after it), this argument does have its attractions.
Then there is the question of the tainted origins of the commitment. In spite of furious opposition from the MoveOn left and the Lindbergh right, and endless talk about a “quagmire” from many liberals, most Americans did back the intervention in Afghanistan because of the self-evident link between al-Qaida and the Taliban. It was said even then that the attack would fail, because (remember?) if you killed Osama Bin Laden, then a thousand more would rise up to take his place. This line soon mutated into, “No war on Iraq: It’s a distraction from the hunt for Bin Laden.” What a good thing it is that the Bush administration didn’t exaggerate by much, because if it had, millions of people would now be saying that they couldn’t think of any reason of their own why the Taliban should have been removed.
The United Nations and the NATO powers conceded the United States the right of self-defense in the Afghan case, thus making it more “legitimate” and multilateral, and (presumably, therefore) turning its current difficulty into a crisis for legitimacy and multilateralism as well. But the coalition mission in Iraq is also now baptized by U.N. resolutions, and the elected Iraqi government seated at the United Nations, so the difference here is not very crucial.
The real difference is this, if one is permitted to mention such a coarse thing as interest: Iraq is enormously more important, geopolitically, than Afghanistan. It sits beside one of the choke-point sea lanes of the global economy, and it occupies a keystone position between the Wahhabist theocracy of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite theocracy of Iran. One may despair of the stupidity of the Bush administration’s “drug war” in Afghanistan (“just hold still while we liberate you and burn your only crop and make sure that all profits go to gangsters”), but it is a bagatelle when compared to the gigantic stakes of Iraqi oil. If anything like a federal and democratic Iraq emerged and was able to recuperate its ravaged and corrupted oil fields, it could undercut the Saudi and Iranian duopoly as well as provide a modern standard of living to a people immiserated by three decades of war and fascism. This would be a prize of historic proportions.
There is some evidence that Murtha is wrong and that the Baathists and Bin Ladenists in Iraq are increasingly targeting civilian Iraqis—especially Kurds and Shiites—rather than those coalition forces who enjoy the benefits of “force protection.” However that may be, both wings of the “insurgency” spend a lot of time trying to blow up the infrastructure of the Iraqi oil industry, and they have succeeded in diverting enormous resources away from reconstruction and toward simple protection of the pipelines and refineries. There are two motives for this apparently self-destructive irrationality. First, the terrorists aim to reduce Iraq to such a condition of chaos and beggary that even their rule—à laTaliban—would seem preferable. (Stage 2 would be to spread this misery to adjoining states, as is already being rehearsed.) Second, they are well aware that the oil-bearing regions of the country are mainly concentrated in Shiite and Kurdish areas. Indeed, the whole rationale for an iron central dictatorship exerted by a minority of the Sunni—the Saddam family mafia—was based on precisely this selfish consideration. (This is also why Ahmad Chalabi, the current energy minister, is considering building a new pipeline to Turkey that would bypass the gangster-dominated areas.)
Thus the real question is this: Would a coalition withdrawal cause the other side to stop its sabotage of Iraq’s chief source of income? This is not a small issue, and it does not just involve the rights and salaries of Iraqis. Saddam’s partial destruction of the Kuwaiti fields in 1991, for example, was an ecological and economic disaster for the whole region, as well as for the world economy. Only very swift action by special forces in 2003 prevented him from blowing the wells again, this time in his “own” country. We are in Iraq partly for Iraqis’ sake and partly for ours: There is an Iraqi interest in federal democracy and renewed membership of the post-sanctions economy (that would also benefit the Sunnis) and an international interest in an Iraq that is disarmed, that does not sponsor terrorists, and that does not menace neighboring states.
The perfect solution was hinted at by President Jalal Talabani on his last trip to Washington, several weeks before Rep. Murtha spoke up. He said he looked forward to the day when American troops could be withdrawn, and he said so plainly enough for the White House to issue a slightly nervous clarification about “deadlines.” Iraq is not “occupied” by men like Talabani: He is a true son of the country and used to be a genuine insurgent at the head of an authentic peoples’ army. It would be wonderful if an elected Iraqi government and parliament—which is thinkable after this December—took the decision to thank the coalition and to invite it to fold its tent and depart. But anyone who thinks that this would stop the madness of jihad need only look at Afghanistan, where a completely discredited and isolated minority continues to use suicide-murder as a tactic and a strategy. How strange that the anti-war left should have forgotten all of its Marxism and superciliously ignored the fact that oil is blood: lifeblood for Iraqis and others. Under Saddam it was wholly privatized; now it can become more like a common resource. But it will need to be protected against those who would shed it and spill it without compunction, and we might as well become used to the fact. With or without a direct Anglo-American garrison, there is an overwhelming humanitarian and international and civilizational interest in defeating the Arab Khmer Rouge that threatens Mesopotamia, and if we could achieve agreement on that single point, the other disagreements would soon disclose themselves as being of a much lesser order.