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Chaos While We’re There, Chaos After We Leave?

My excellent friend Charlie of the excellent counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama asks for my thoughts on this excellent question from my other excellent friend Noah Shachtman of the excellent Danger Room blog:

So the Brits bail, and Basra is “essentially divided up among Shi’ite party mafias, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption,” as Anthony Cordesman puts it today. Isn’t this an extremely bad omen for an American troop withdrawal, under a would-be President Obama or Clinton? How would a country-wide draw-down be different than this local one?

Charlie replies:

One answer is that the Brits [who used to control Basra] adopted a “peacekeeping” mindset in Basra and never really engaged in a broader COIN or CT effort. That meant that all the myriad Shia groups were able to pursue their (relatively) non-violent political agenda and consolidate control over the political levers of city. There’s a chance (albeit not a big one) that our COIN efforts in Anbar, Baghdad, and elsewhere have undercut the political bases of these groups and made a Basra-style breakdown less likely. Time will tell.

Here’s what I’d add to that. Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we’re seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos.

So to avoid chaos — and I recognize this is banal and generic — you can’t just pull up stakes. Some sort of political accommodation has to occur alongside a strategy of extrication. There will be some good suggestions coming out of various think tanks and government offices over the next several months that put flesh to bone here. But the broader point is this: if we decide we’re just going to order the post-surge forces out of Iraq in X number of months/years, and accompanies that decision on the political-diplomatic end, then yeah, Basra probably be a prologue. But if we spend the time between now and then — say, a new Democratic president’s Inaugural — working on some Undefined Diplomatic Strategy, then we have our best shot — and it’s not a sure shot; I’ll be the first to admit — at extracting ourselves with a minimum of chaos.

Now, this is true unless, like Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush, you believe we should stay in Iraq forever. But if you don’t, then you indeed have to grapple with this conundrum. There are no guarantees. There are no good answers. There are no grounds for certainty. That’s what makes it a quagmire. But you don’t have the luxury of throwing your hands up in despair and pleading that complexity should bring apoplexy. That’s why it’s called .

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