As we struggle to extricate ourselves from Iraq, it’s useful to look at how the Soviet Union handled a similar position in the 1980s. Then we should do the opposite.The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 based partly on an intelligence failure analogous to our own in Iraq: they believed that their poorly behaved puppet in Kabul was poised to switch loyalties to the United States.
By 1986, the Soviets wanted to end the Afghan war, and tried some of the same approaches that we have tried or talked about: a new constitution, a new leader, a policy of “national reconciliation.”
These worked as well for them as they have for us.
Many Soviets just wanted to cut their losses and pull out. But other officials raised counterarguments that may sound familiar:
If we simply pull out, we’ll destroy our influence around the world for a generation. And if we leave, the country will fall apart, and there’ll be a bloodbath focusing on our friends. Muslim extremists will come to power, and it’s better to fight them over there than on our side of the border.
These were serious arguments, and there was truth to them. After the Soviets finally pulled out after nine years, ending what Izvestia called “the wound that would not heal,” Afghanistan did eventually collapse into a civil war that was worse than ever.
Yet in retrospect, it is also clear that the Soviets and Afghans alike would have been far better off if the U.S.S.R. had withdrawn earlier. Staggering on only delayed the inevitable, increasing their own casualties and empowering their enemies.
And that’s a lesson we should absorb in Iraq.
Gen. David Petraeus is doing an excellent job, but the surge isn’t about making streets safe. Rather its aim is to create political space for reconciliation — and in that respect the surge has failed.
Even in the Bush administration, everybody seems to recognize that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is incapable of achieving a reconciliation. So there’s talk of engineering a replacement of Mr. Maliki — but we tried that in Vietnam in 1963, and the Soviets tried that in Afghanistan in 1986. It didn’t work either time.
In the absence of realistic hope for reconciliation, let’s not drag things along as the Soviets did in the 1980s but bite the bullet as Mikhail Gorbachev did in 1987 and announce that we are headed for the exits.
There is a good argument for keeping a battalion in Kurdistan — the Kurds would love us to stay, and our presence would reduce the risk of a war between the Kurds and Turks. Moreover, in exchange for staying, we could wring concessions out of the Kurds that would reduce the risk of war in Kirkuk. Kurdistan is the one part of Iraq that is still hopeful, and we should try hard to keep it viable.
Some experts argue for keeping bases in western Iraq or southern Iraq as well. But unless local people are pleading with us to stay, our presence mostly serves to empower Moktada al-Sadr and turn him into Iraq’s most powerful politician.
Instead of spending billions in those places, let’s do more to help Jordan — which has been greatly destabilized by Iraqis pouring into that country. For humanitarian and strategic reasons alike, we should assure that refugee Iraqi children get an education and that Jordan doesn’t come apart at the seams.
There’s lots of talk about partitioning Iraq to reduce the violence, and it’s happening already — and that de facto partition is a crucial step to reduce the risk of genocide once we leave. But for the U.S. to embrace partition would be disastrous: We would be portrayed in madrassas around the world as the infidels who dismembered an Arab country to seize its oil and emasculate it on behalf of Israel.
An essential step is to work more closely with Iraq’s neighbors, including those we don’t like, such as Iran and Syria. These countries have as much interest in a stable Iraq as we do, and the moment Iran shoulders some responsibility for southern Iraq it will also risk instability in its despotic regime at home.
We also need to continue the push for progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and Israeli-Syrian peace). In the Middle East, there are dividends just for trying to achieve peace, even if the efforts fail, and that should be part of our Iraq recovery strategy.
At the end of the day, we have only so much money and so much energy. One option is to continue to devote $10 billion a month and countless lives to Iraq in hopes that our luck will somehow turn. Or we could devote those sums to health care at home and humanitarian programs all around the world — because in the long run, the best hope to defeat the jihadis worldwide isn’t to drop bombs but to build schools.