Donald Horowitz of Duke University analyzes the future of a post-US Iraq and finds that it would lead to a massive humanitarian and political disaster:
With a territorial base, radical Islamist and Baathist forces would find ways to damage our interests here and abroad. Worse, our withdrawal would tacitly establish the principle, which we forcibly rejected in Afghanistan and more recently in Somalia, that we are prepared to live with a regime dedicated to our destruction even when we might be in a position to do otherwise.
Finally, a sundered Iraq would assuredly become a tempting target for external forces. Iran, already influential in the south, might aid the Madhi Army in the center. Arab Sunni regimes worried by the growth of Iranian power would likely move into parts of the vacuum we left behind. In these rivalries, played out in Iraq, there is considerable potential for wider war, with unpredictable consequences for regional stability and the fortunes of our various allies and antagonists.
A withdrawal from Iraq would likely be the biggest foreign policy blunder in United States history — and that’s even if one accepts that invading in the first place currently takes that prize. To do so would be to ensure that force inimical to the United States get a major victory and the Iraqi people end up in a situation that makes their current predicament seem like a walk in the park.
It’s certain that Iraq would break up, and it would not break up cleanly. There isn’t a convenient geographical dividing line between Sunni and Shi’ite in Iraq (or Kurd and Arab for that matter). Instead, places like Baghdad, Baquba, and Kirkuk would become battlegrounds in which the sort of violence we’re seeing now would pale in comparison. The best one could hope for would be a short war — more likely there would be massive ethnic cleansing throughout Iraq. If one thinks that problem is bad now, imagine what it would be if there was nothing to hold it back at all.
Iran would likely expand their influence with Iraqi Shi’ites, even if it took an inter-Shi’ite civil war to get there. Not all Iraqi Shi’ites are natural allies of the Iranians — in fact, few are. They don’t share the same language or culture, and the worst fighting of the Iran-Iraq War was between fellow Shi’ites on both sides. It is quite conceivable that Iranian forces would invade Southern Iraq and finish what they could not have done during the 1980s. The slaughter that they would bring in their wake would be one of the worst since the previous war.
Meanwhile, the Turks would not tolerate an independent Kurdistan. (They barely do now that Iraqi Kurdistan is mostly independent.) The chances of the Turks moving across the border on a mission to stop the PKK from launching attacks against Ankara would be quite high — and again, the death toll could be immense, especially if the Kurds decide to enact their revenge on the Turks with terrorism. Even though this situation is less severe than what is likely to happen in the rest of Iraq, it’s still troublesome indeed.
From the US perspective, the worst outcome would be in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. The Sunnis are slowly coming around to ally with the US because they know that al-Qaeda doesn’t care for them and we can protect them against the Shi’a. Absent that, they would be forced by necessity to rejoin with al-Qaeda in order to protect themselves. Places like al-Anbar would become the perfect home for al-Qaeda — meaning that we would likely end up back in Iraq regardless of our intentions to withdraw in order to refight the battles we had already won in al-Anbar. Every death that we’ve incurred in that long and difficult struggle would be for naught — and we’d only incur more trying to undo the damage our hasty and reckless exit would create.
That’s only the immediate set of consequences. Longer down the road there’s a good chance that the violence and instability in Iraq would spread across the region — a ripple effect that would disrupt the world’s oil markets and give al-Qaeda footholds across the region.
Even if one thinks that the current status quo is terrible, the consequences of withdrawal would be nothing short of catastrophic. It would lead to not less war, but more — and the United States would inevitably be drawn back into the region. Like it or not, our strategic interests are not going away, and we cannot afford to let the Middle East go to hell, as tempting as that may be. The Iraqi people would bear the brunt of the violence — the current horrors of Iraq give us a preview of what life would be like in an Iraq that’s been broken into pieces with all sides fighting for control of Iraq’s many mixed territories.
As Colin Powell said, we’re playing by the Pottery Barn rules, and since we “broke” Iraq, we cannot shirk our responsibility to fixing it. This war is crucial to the wider war against Islamic extremism, and the convenient fiction that we can leave Iraq (where al-Qaeda is) and fight in Afghanistan (where al-Qaeda is not, having slipped away to the Pakistani frontier) is just that — a fiction. Withdrawal is wrong, and it is an abrogation of everything this country believes in. If we want less war in the future, we have to work out the situation in Iraq — otherwise we will not face a more peaceful world, but one infinitely more violent that it was before we left.