BOSTON — Whenever someone suggests that we end one of our foreign wars by simply declaring victory and going home, the name of Vermont’s crusty senator, George Aiken, is inevitably invoked. That was Aiken’s advice during the Vietnam War, but his advice was not taken, so we finally went home in defeat.
Now a generation or two later, it is a senior military adviser, Col. Timothy Reese, American adviser to the Iraqi military, who has made a similar recommendation in Iraq, the New York Times reported Friday. In a memo to his superiors, he said the Iraqi military was corrupt, poorly managed and overly influenced by sectarian pressures, and, since there was little possibility that the U.S. could improve that situation, we ought to leave the Iraqis to their own devises.
Reese said that the Iraqis are able to ride their own bicycle, now, and that we should take our hands off because we are holding them back and causing resentment. “If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted it is now long past,” Reese wrote.
Reese believes that the old Soviet model Iraq used for its armed forces before the Americans came is “too entrenched and will not change.” And U.S. combat forces “will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it.”
This is not the view of Reese’s superiors, who believe that, although we have removed combat troops from city centers, there is still a need for us to stick around for many years especially since violence is still so prevalent, and because of rising tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
This is the unending dilemma of colonial powers that see the need to withdraw but don’t want to leave too much of a mess behind. At what point to you take your hand off the bicycle and let your dependencies peddle on their own?
President Richard Nixon hoped to build up the forces of the Republic of South Vietnam so that American forces could comfortably withdraw. Some people spoke of a decent interval, a time of quiet and stability before the whole house of cards collapsed.
Revisionists say that we had basically won the Vietnam War by 1974, and if we had only stayed on to advise and provide air power and ammunition we might not have lost. That ignores the fact that the North Vietnamese always had the capability to lick their wounds and come back again in their struggle to unite their country. The timing was always up to the enemy. It also ignores the fact that, in democracies, citizens grow weary of colonial wars that last too long and cost too much.
The British were in a hurry to quit India after centuries of British rule. The partition between independent India and Pakistan cost a million deaths to sectarian fighting, and, after multiple wars, tensions between the two entities remain high even to this day.
In Palestine, the British pulled out in the middle of a civil war between Arab and Jew for the Holy Land, but, in hindsight, the British could have done little if they stayed to prevent bloodshed between two national, ethnic and religious groups fighting for the same patch of ground. Both wanted the British out so they could go for each other’s throats.
Public support at home, whether it was for the British in Palestine or Americans in Vietnam, could not be maintained. And this is what Reese is worried about when he says that U.S. forces will not be in Iraq long enough or to really change the way Iraqis do things.
Four years ago I met some of the American officers training Iraqi forces in Baghdad. They said it wasn’t difficult to train Iraqis to fight well. It was more difficult to train them in logistics. But if Iraqi leaders had a sectarian agenda, then the army would too. That has not changed in a Shiite oriented government. For the two permanent results of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq were to empower the Shiite majority, which had been dominated by Sunnis for centuries, and to finalize the de facto separation of Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. That isn’t going to change no matter what the U.S. does or does not do.
In the end, Americans are going to have to let the Iraqis do it their way. As T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) famously wrote in another era: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”
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