Toby Dodge: E is for election. E is for exit

The Americans want to get out of Iraq, but they know they can't do so without dirty deals and even more violence
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The Independent Online

Today, for the first time in their lives, 14 million Iraqis get the chance to vote in meaningful elections, choosing an assembly that will draft a new constitution. George Bush has called the Iraqi polls "a grand moment for those who believe in freedom", claiming that "we're watching history being made". Behind the fanfare, though, discussions in Washington and London are concerned with how to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. On Monday Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, cobbled together yet another new plan to reduce the visibility of - and fatalities to - US and UK forces. In the US, think-tanks are debating how to get out without Saigon-style helicopter evacuations from the embassy roof. Both US and UK policy makers now realise that the current situation is unsustainable, but they don't know how to get from A to B to a dignified exit.

Today, for the first time in their lives, 14 million Iraqis get the chance to vote in meaningful elections, choosing an assembly that will draft a new constitution. George Bush has called the Iraqi polls "a grand moment for those who believe in freedom", claiming that "we're watching history being made". Behind the fanfare, though, discussions in Washington and London are concerned with how to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. On Monday Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, and his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, cobbled together yet another new plan to reduce the visibility of - and fatalities to - US and UK forces. In the US, think-tanks are debating how to get out without Saigon-style helicopter evacuations from the embassy roof. Both US and UK policy makers now realise that the current situation is unsustainable, but they don't know how to get from A to B to a dignified exit.

The past two months have witnessed a stark change in the atmosphere across Whitehall and in Washington. For the first year of the occupation, the discussions I had with both American and British civil servants were marked by a robust and confident defence of Iraq policy. Attempts to point out shortcomings or oversights were greeted with angry denials and the occasional insult. Not any more. The mood among those wrestling with Iraq is now very bleak. Debates within government have lost their idealistic zeal; certainty has been replaced by depression. Having worked on and written about Iraq for the past 10 years, I'm sorry to say that I share this pessimism. Increasingly I hear a new set of phrases: "least worst options", "minimising damage" and discussions of how to get the troops home as quickly as possible.

Even allowing for a certain pessimism, policy options do appear very limited and their chances of success minimal. Washington is committed to keeping 150,000 American troops in the country for the next two years, but all hope is now pinned on Iraqification (which is what academics call "indigenisation" and historians would recognise as "Vietnamisation"). The aim is quickly to shift the burden of imposing law and order (and, bluntly, the cost in terms of lives lost) on to Iraqi forces. US army patrols, currently exceeding 12,000 a week, will be dramatically cut. Their place is to be taken by the Iraqi National Guard, army and police force. The US army will either be redeployed to less vulnerable roles or will act as "mentors", stiffening the resolve of Iraqi forces by jointly patrolling with them. The hope is that the emboldened Iraqi forces will give the US a licence to leave.

But, as with so much of post-war Iraq strategy, the reality undermines the wishful thinking of the policy prescriptions. Just how an Iraqi army less than two years old is meant to succeed where the world's sole superpower has so spectacularly failed is left largely unexplained. The majority of the Iraqi National Guard and police force have not proved to be as reliable as their American trainers had hoped. Hastily recruited and rudimentarily trained, they have shown a marked reluctance to fight fellow Iraqis, with desertion and even collusion commonplace. Saddam had an army of 400,000 at his disposal, whereas the target figures for the combined Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi army number under 100,000. Of this, little over half have been recruited and partially or fully trained. The 20,000 insurgents, organised in 60 autonomous groups, have shown themselves adept at continuing to inflict death and destruction.

Over the 21 months since US troops toppled Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people frequently have been told that one event after another signalled the beginning of the end of the violence that has come to dominate their lives since regime change. The creation of the Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, the capture of Saddam in December and then the handing over of sovereignty in June 2004 were all heralded as watershed moments that would turn the tide against the insurgency. Instead of halting the country's slide into anarchy, these events had no positive effect on the situation. Instead Iraq has been engulfed in a rising tide of violence and instability. What the idealistic if not naive claims about the numerous "turning points" of the past two years have in common with the fanfare of publicity that surrounds the elections today is that they have fundamentally misunderstood the problems facing Iraq. Not until that is understood can the Americans think of leaving Iraq secure.

At the heart of the violence is a profound security vacuum which encompasses the whole of central and southern Iraq. For the Western media this is personified by the daily car bombings that rock Baghdad, but for Iraqis it manifests itself in a countrywide crime wave that makes life extremely precarious. This lawlessness sprang from the complete collapse of the Iraqi state in the wake of the invasion. This was compounded by the decision to disband the Iraqi army, sending home thousands of trained soldiers to face little more than unemployment. It is this chronic lack of security that haunts Iraq and made the US presence there so unpopular.

It seems almost certain that the increasing violence will force the United States to leave Iraq prematurely, to pull its troops out before the US's and UK's promises have been fulfilled. Instead of Iraq acting as a beacon of democracy, the danger is that it will become the centre of sustained instability, a breeding ground for violence and radicalism. This would be a massive humiliation, but it is a pill the US will have to swallow. The recent violence is not a blip. The longer the US is there, the greater the casualties.

This conundrum dominated the discussions I recently had with a senior US adviser. A veteran of American interventions across the globe, he saw damage limitation as the best that could be hoped for. He thought the only realistic option was to do a deal with Iraq's neighbours, letting them seal the country off from the wider Middle East in the hope that its violent contagion could be halted. Such an ignominious end to a war so closely associated with the political fortunes of both the American President and British Prime Minister may be too much for them to contemplate.

But it is now clear that in arranging the pull-out, the US has three options, none good. The first is to present it as a "job done", saying that the US has liberated the country and brought it democracy. Secondly, Bush can sweat it out for four years, allowing a new, untainted administration to "bring the boys home". And the third possibility is an unplanned scramble to leave the country as quickly as possible, triggered by a mass-casualty event. In short, there are no good options, just a series of humiliations, of dirty compromises which which leave Iraq violent and unstable. .

The US might have got itself off the hook had it elected John Kerry, who might have been able to arrange some sort of release courtesy of the UN. That option is gone. One way or another, the US will have to leave. Today's elections are not the solution. Without a major policy rethink, the problem is set to get worse.

Toby Dodge teaches in the politics department, Queen Mary, University of London. His most recent book is 'Inventing Iraq; the Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied'

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