On the Sunday talk shows Condoleezza Rice argued that were the United States to withdraw then Iraq would become Al Quaeda’s refuge like Afghanistan used to be. Her rhetoric reveals that the Bush administration has still not come to terms with realities in Iraq and with the limits of American power.
Afghanistan and Iraq are different. In the absence of Russian aspiration to the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan has been strategically irrelevant since the arrival of European powers on the Indian subcontinent. When the Soviets gave up in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, Afghanistan did not matter to the world any longer.
While Russia sustained the Northern Alliance to defend its southern border, the Taliban took over the bulk of the country with Pakistani support. As the Taliban suppressed the Afghani people, the economy could not recover and the contributions of an Arab millionaire was an important source of foreign currency to a regime caught up in the middle ages.
Iraq, on the other hand, is the geostrategic keystone of the Arab peninsula. Iraq is one of two states in the Middle East that have water and oil. Oil means wealth. Water means people. Next to Iran, Iraq is the second most populous oil state. Thanks to its geographic location, Iraq blocks Iranian influence.
That’s why Kuwait, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia will remain involved in Iraq even if the United States were to withdraw. In the past, the oil countries have paid Syrians, Egyptians, and Pakistanis for security services. It is difficult to predict how such a coalition would shape Iraqi politics, especially if it supports the Sunnis while Iran backs the Shia. But one thing is sure; Iraq will not be left to its own devices even if the United States were to retrench in Kurdistan, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Shia or Sunnis would come out on top. Either way, Al Quaeda will not be allowed to remain in Iraq. The Shia will expel Al Quaeda to put an end to the terrorist violence that targets primarily Shia civilians and holy sites. The Sunni will expel Al Quaeda because Sunnis will want to establish a monopoly on coercion. Their foreign allies will make sure that Iraqis have the means to deny Al Quaeda a lair in Iraq.
The real danger in Iraq is that current conditions persist. If the Iraqi state cannot be recreated then Iran cannot be contained nor will Al Quaeda be expelled. The price will be horrendous bloodshed among the Iraqi people and a strategic disaster for the United States and the western world.
The way to get around is not to muddle on but to involve Iraq’s neighbors. The Iraqi constitution will remain meaningless unless all parties, foreign and domestic, will have a stake in the institution. That’s why international negotiations that involve Iraq’s neighbors have to determine the answer to two questions:
What will it take that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds will feel safe?
What will it take that Iran, Turkey, and the oil states will consider themselves safe? (Syria matters but can be controlled with Saudi money.)
The outcome of that inquiry will set the parameters for a rational use of American forces in Iraq, not the other way around. There will be neither peace nor an Iraqi state until the Iraqi people and Iraq’s neighbors expect to be secure. Until the administration engages the security needs of all parties, military efforts will be in vain.