Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Can Iraq survive a US withdrawal?

Juan Cole at Informed Comment spots a couple of reports that, to my mind, are very worrying about Iraq's future after US forces depart - or even as they are drawing down.

First, there are still areas (the NYT report calls them "pockets") of Iraq where violence is ongoing, hardly sporadic. As you read the account, it's clear that US troops are still taking the lead in some of the more dangerous tasks, and that people's lives are still very much at risk.

Ten yards in front of him, an Iraqi soldier was inspecting a possible booby trap in a desolate village deserted long ago.

“You never know what he is playing with,” said Corporal Buck, 27, his eyes squarely on the soldier.

Moments later, an explosion rang out less than a half-mile away. An unsuspecting Iraqi had detonated a pressure-triggered roadside bomb. His legs were ripped off, and after a brief struggle for air, he died in the dirt.

Meanwhile, across the country (or at least the non-Kurdistan portion of it), people are still struggling with terrible infrastructure - lack of water for even the most basic tasks,

making something as simple as bathing a chore that requires extensive planning.
And they have little confidence that their newly elected local governments have the competence to do much about it. Little wonder. Corruption, bribes, nepotism, "patronage" - all have been frequently described as rampant in Iraq's local government. Combine that with the sharp decrease in revenues from the main source - oil - as oil prices have plummeted over the last year. The central government in Baghdad is having difficulty coming up with money for its own employees' salaries, including security forces.

And thousands remain unemployed, especially young men. One of the reports notes that 28 percent of young men ages 15 to 29 are unemployed. Many of them are former members of the Sunni "Awakening Council" militias, who were supposedly promised jobs from the government as they stood down from fighting al-Qaeda. That's not happening; indeed, many of them are afraid they'll be arrested by the (largely Shiite) security forces of Nuri al-Maliki's government. Many of them are going to be easy pickings - as in, ready recruits - for insurgent/resistance groups, including "al-Qaeda" jihadis. When you have no other means of support, it sometimes seems best to throw in with such groups, as much for a paycheck as anything else.

Tom Ricks is right. Iraq is not "over" - and as violence ramps up as US forces continue to pull back, the John McCain types are going to put tremendous pressure on Mr. Obama to crawl back through the loopholes in the status-of-forces agreement and keep a sizable US combat presence in Iraq so that the US can maintain its "honor" and US troops will not have "sacrificed in vain."

To pose General Petraeus' famous question again: Tell me how this ends?

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