Robert Kaplan writes that Iraq is on the brink of an “explosion of genocide.” He argues that an American withdrawal would be a massive humanitarian catastrophe that would greatly magnify the problems to come:
Our withdrawal, when it comes to that, must be different. If we decide to reduce forces in the country under the current anarchic conditions, then we are both morally and strategically obligated to talk with Iran and Syria, as well as call for a regional conference. Iraq may be closer to an explosion of genocide than we know. An odd event, or the announcement of pulling 20,000 American troops out, might trigger it. We simply cannot contemplate withdrawal under these conditions without putting Iraq’s neighbors on the spot, forcing them to share public responsibility for the outcome, that is if they choose to stand aside and not help us.
The problem is that neither Iran nor Syria care whether or not Iraq stays together. A destroyed rump state that is a petri dish for terrorism would be in the interests of both Damascus and Tehran — but not in our interest, the Iraqi people’s interest, or the interests of the region as a whole. Trusting Iran and Syria to manage the system is simply too naïve and assumes that those actors are far more trustworthy than they truly are. We’d be taking another bet, and it’s a bet we’d be sure to lose.
I’m not sure what the solution in Iraq should be. I’m not entirely certain that there even is a solution. It may well be that the destruction of Iraq is inevitable and our job will be to safeguard civilian populations when and where we can. However, the one thing we cannot do is withdraw and ensure that the situation becomes bloodier than anything we have seen before. The very idea that withdrawal makes no difference ignores the fact that things could get much worse — we could have a slaughter that’s nearly unprecedented in world history. Worse yet, we could have that slaughter spill over into the rest of the region, which could have profound effects on the rest of the world. The inevitable result would almost certainly be a new safe haven for al-Qaeda and an ideal breeding ground for terrorism.
Ultimately, it’s the Iraqis who will have to decide. Perhaps sooner or later the various groups that are causing trouble will tire of the violence. Perhaps they’ll be suppressed — and finally the al-Maliki government is working to disarm Moqtada al-Sadr’s dangerous Mahdi Army. We need to do what we can to keep the situation as bottled up as we can and try to train the Iraqi military and security forces until they can keep the peace in our stead.
We’re in the unenviable and difficult position of frantically thrashing about for a solution to a problem that we cannot solve. We can only push the Iraqis towards a better solution than fratricide on a nightmare scale. The worst thing that can happen is that we’ll take an action that will push Iraq over the brink, and the harder we push, the greater that risk.