An honorable withdrawal

The London bombings remove any doubt about the damage the Iraq war has done to Western interests. Now, we must figure out the wisest way to extricate ourselves.

Published July 15, 2005 7:57PM (EDT)

The London atrocities should quell any doubt about the damage this war is inflicting on our interests and those of our allies, beyond the enormous costs in blood and money and the depletion of our armed forces. On July 10, a report in the Times of London (which also broke the story of the Downing Street memo) revealed the existence of a special dossier titled "Young Muslims and Extremism" that was prepared last year for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Compiled jointly by Britain's Home Office and Foreign Office, the dossier warned that U.S. and British foreign policy was causing severe alienation among Muslim citizens of the United Kingdom -- and referred to the Iraq war as a "recruiting sergeant" for al-Qaida.

Of course, this outcome was predictable -- and rather widely predicted -- as a potential consequence of an unjustified and bloody war of occupation in an Arab Muslim country. Which doesn't mean that the invasion in any way justifies the actions of the murderous extremists and the deluded young people they used to carry out the London bombings. And it is true, as Blair pointed out, that the Islamist killers attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, long before the Iraq invasion.

But al-Qaida's message of alienation and extremism has been amplified by the images of Muslim suffering and the reality of occupation. The most disturbing fact about the London bombings is that the perpetrators were British citizens, apparently assisted by foreign jihadi experts who sneaked in and out of the country. How is subduing the Iraqi insurgency relevant to countering that kind of threat? Killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a firefight will do little to discourage homegrown extremists from carrying high explosives onto trains and buses.

The sooner we get out of Iraq, the sooner we will be able to reunite the Western alliance, reestablish alliances with modern Arab and Muslim governments, and refocus our forces and resources on the real threats to our security.

Unfortunately, getting out is much more difficult than getting in, as Colin Powell warned the president before they embarked on this dubious adventure. Racked by invasion and many years of oppression, Iraq is now on the verge of civil war between its Sunni and Shiite communities.

The immediate departure of coalition troops might well plunge the entire country into a sectarian bloodbath -- and leave it to the mercies of Baathist murderers or Iranian mullahs. Having promised freedom and democracy to the Iraqis, and cost them many lives and incredible damage to their heritage and infrastructure, we owe them better than that.

Yet the conundrum faced by policymakers is that the occupation is also making matters worse. By provoking Sunni nationalist insurgents and attracting foreign jihadists -- and providing a symbol of Western oppression of Islam -- the presence of our troops offers powerful propaganda to al-Qaida. Without any certainty that we will eventually leave, suspicion of American motives grows across the Arab and Muslim worlds. The resulting damage to our real war against terrorism is enormous, and cannot be repaired until our troops come home.

There is no sign that the current U.S. and British policy will achieve those urgent goals anytime soon.

President Bush claims that Iraqi troops and police forces will eventually permit our own soldiers to leave, although he has no idea when. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari offers vague assurances that those Iraqi forces will soon be competent to provide security on their own in some provinces, but he won't say where. Presumably Jafaari fears that any city or province he names will instantly become the site of intensified insurgent attacks and terror -- just as Bush worries that any timetable will merely allow the insurgents to bide their time. Such concerns are well founded.

As Juan Cole recently noted, quoting a Marine officer who just came home, the optimistic assertions of Bush and Jafaari are not to be believed. The Iraqi forces are much weaker than Bush has claimed, with far fewer than 160,000 well-trained, properly equipped and loyal troops. The counterinsurgency strategy has achieved little more than stalemate, especially in the central provinces and around the capital. Quagmire is no longer an unfair description of the war.

Military action must have an achievable political objective -- a rule of war and statecraft that the incompetent policymakers in this administration appear to have forgotten. The likelihood that we can pacify Iraq with total victory against the insurgents seems small. We are increasingly caught in a trap that can only gladden our enemies.

How can we get out with decency and honor? By pursuing sensible political objectives with diplomacy and discussion rather than solely through armed force.

The Bush administration and the Iraqi government should seek to open serious talks with representatives of the Sunni insurgency. Perhaps other countries in the region would be able to facilitate such discussions. On the table would be the eventual departure of American troops in exchange for the Sunnis' disarming and political participation.

Some Sunni leaders reportedly regret their decision to boycott the elections last winter. A negotiated conclusion to the insurgency would allow them to join in the building of a stable, peaceful and perhaps even democratic nation.

Talking with the people responsible for the daily atrocities occurring in Iraq may sound like an awful concession to very bad people. The only thing worse would be for this war to drag on several more years -- weakening us and strengthening our enemies.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Al-qaida Iraq Middle East