Richard Clarke, writing in the same New Republic, Iraq: What's Next piece cited in the last post (registration required) argues that it is always possible to withdraw from Iraq because it can always be invaded again:
As the head of the British Army recently noted, the very presence of large numbers of foreign combat troops is the source of much of the violence and instability. ...
Advocating a near-term withdrawal of U.S. combat divisions is not the same as the United States foreswearing to act in Iraq in the future. We should declare that we will act, with the Iraqi government or without, to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven after we depart. Pursuing the terrorists in Iraq does not require 150,000 troops; it can be done with intelligence capabilities, U.S. Special Forces, and airpower—much of which can be based in Kuwait. Moreover, the Iraqis themselves may rid the country of Al Qaeda once that becomes their responsibility. Already, Sunni groups opposed to the U.S. presence are taking action against Al Qaeda.
There's a lot to sympathize with in Clarke's ideas. But like every other proposal put forward in the New Republic special, there is no Free Lunch. It's very well to say that a large number of foreign troops destabilizes a country. However that's rather obviously at odds with the theme, echoed everywhere, that it would have been better to have deployed half a million troops to begin with and kept them there. Or with proposals to increase the troop numbers even now.
And the idea that the US can always pursue terrorists in a country with Special Forces sounds appealing. But if this were always possible, why not pursue terrorists suspects in Iran? Or Lebanon? The battlefield in Afghanistan has been steadily evolving from the near-exclusive use of Special Forces to a more conventional battlefield. During the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon three Special Forces were publicly mounted; but none significantly damaged the enemy.
The US can "declare that we will act, with the Iraqi government or without, to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven after we depart". But who's going to believe threats and declarations from a force in retreat? It may be argued that on the contrary, US declarations will have even less force once it has been shown that American main forces can be driven off, not even by threats to kill American troops but simply by threats among the locals to kill each other.
The real point of OIF -- if one excludes declarations to bring democracy to the Middle East -- was to warn off terrorist supporting states by threatening to destroy them. All over the world the forces Richard Clarke thinks so highly of -- police, intelligence and Special Forces operatives -- are going after terrorist cells in coordination with their host country counterparts. It's not an easy task. Corruption means that American-provided equipment is sometimes misused; as in wiretap gear employed for political espionage; air assets used to ferry local Generals to golf tournaments; reward money being scammed by crooked counterparts. And the sheer evil of the world means it is an unending task. But it can be done. It can be done if state support for terrorist cells can be limited to some manageable level. Otherwise they enemy cells will overmatch the agents fighting them on a daily basis. Really large amounts of state support makes it hard to use police, intelligence and Special Forces in places like Gaza, Lebanon or Iraq with any decisiveness. Iraq is itself a recursive problem; originally invaded to dissuade the Saddam Hussein's it is under internal assault from groups supported by Syria and Iran. Defense Tech provides an example in the work of the Queen's Royal Hussars along the Iraq-Iran border.
Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere commands 500 soldiers in three squadrons scattered across the dry expanse of Maysan province on the Iranian border. His mission: to intercept illegal weapons and foreign fighters slipping across the old minefields and hulk-dotted former battlefields left over from the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 3 million people died here from 1980 to 1988 in what was just the bloodiest chapter of a long bloody history. Maysan is entirely Shi'ite, deeply tribal and hostile to all foreigners -- defined as anyone not from Maysan. That means Sunni insurgents and terrorists don't last long here. On the other hand, British forces aren't terribly welcome either. It didn't help that, until August, British forces in the province operated from a former Ba'ath prison called Abu Naji. The base became a magnet for mortar and rocket fire.
What Labouchere is engaged in stopping, though everyone seems to be at great pains to avoid mentioning it, is State support for Shi'ite terrorist groups in Iran. The reason that Labouchere must keep moving is because he "only" has 30 mm guns for his 500 man unit; and the reason those are inadequate is because he is facing an enemy with state support; and the reason he must patrol the border is because the State -- Iran -- will not be deterred by any of Richard Clarke's suggested declarations that "we will act, with the Iraqi government or without, to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven after we depart". Nor will policemen be able to operate since the support is so great it can menace a British Army battalion once it is immobilized.
One of the most tangible effects of a perceived American defeat in Iraq is that no state supporter of terrorism need fear it any more. The UK Times describes the open rearmament of Hezbollah from Syria. The IDF's withdrawal from both Gaza and Southern Lebanon may have achieved many things, but none of them include putting the fear of God into Syria. Neither America nor Israel seems to worry it much, nor apparently does the EU-heavy United Nations Peacekeeping force tasked with stopping it.
“Since the ceasefire, additional rockets, weapons and military equipment have reached Hezbollah,” said an Israeli intelligence officer. “We assume they now have about 20,000 rockets of all ranges — a bit more than they had before July 12.”
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has confirmed the Israeli estimate. In a recent interview with al-Manar, the Hezbollah television station, he claimed his organisation had restocked its arsenal and now held at least 30,000 rockets, sufficient for five months of war. Israeli military intelligence has warned the government that renewed fighting with Hezbollah, which it regards as a terrorist organisation, should be expected as early as next spring.
This is what the argument that the enemy will pursue following a withdrawal from Iraq really means. It will send the signal that even relatively weak powers like Syria and Iran can openly destabilize their neighbors and attack the United States without any real fear that their regimes will be changed. And inevitably they will do so again and again. Perhaps the most cruel aspect of proposals to "withdraw" from Iraq without decisively winning is that the word is really a euphemism for a change of venue. Using the word "withdrawal" falsely implies a choice between war and peace when it is really a choice between war and more war. In the New Republic article cited above, George Packer, while advocating a withdrawal from Iraq, warned that Iraqis who had helped America would suffer the fate of the Cambodians left behind to the Khmer Rouge, citing British poet James Fenton's eulogy to make the point.
One man shall smile one day and say goodbye.
Two shall be left, two shall be left to die.
One man shall give his best advice.
Three men shall pay the price.
One man shall live, live to regret.
Four men shall meet the debt.
One man shall wake from terror to his bed.
Five men shall be dead.
One man to five.
A million men to one.
And still they die.
And still the war goes on.
And though the verses are good, nothing I have seen or recently read has disgusted me more. In Fenton's poem is captured self-indulgent smarminess which left millions to their deaths and yet has the insolence to wallow in anguish over it. But this time it will be different. This time no man will get to say goodbye. All shall meet the debt; it is as much as we deserve and sadly, all we can look forward to.