Toby Dodge: Quitting: as bad as invading

Calls to pull out are based on wishful thinking, mendacity and negligence
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The Independent Online

Across the political barricades, those who have led the opposition to the increasing cost of the occupation appear to be singing from a similar hymn sheet. On Thursday the Democratic congressman and Vietnam war veteran John Murtha called for immediate withdrawal, arguing that the best way to right "this flawed policy wrapped in illusion" was simply to bring the boys home and leave Iraqis to their own devices. A similar argument, though not as honestly expressed, has been the long-held position of the Liberal Democrats in Britain. Charles Kennedy is demanding the Government lay out a clear exit strategy, with his foreign policy spokesperson Menzies Campbell claiming on Radio 4's Today programme that the British government has a larger burden of responsibility to the 8,500 British personnel in Iraq than it does to 27 million Iraqis.

What US and British policy pronouncements on Iraq have in common with their domestic opponents is an amazing detachment from realities on the ground. The calls for a speedy exit from Iraq in the late autumn of 2005 are very reminiscent of the justifications of the invasion itself in the spring of 2003. Both are based on wishful thinking, mendacity and a disregard for the consequences of policy that borders on the criminally negligent. After two-and-a-half years of occupation, Iraq today is a country dominated by lawlessness, violence and profound insecurity. The government elected in January has singularly failed to deliver law and order or economic development, or realise the hopes placed in it by the eight million Iraqis who risked their lives to vote for democracy. To suggest, as both the Prime Minister, President Bush and their opponents do, that this ruling élite can stabilise Iraq and act as the justification for British and American troops to come home is to once again sacrifice truth at the altar of political expediency.

Look at last week. On Friday an estimated 90 to 150 people were killed by two suicide bombings. In one of these attacks, on a busy Shia mosque, the bloodshed was designed to inflame communal divisions and lead the country further down the road to civil war. The death toll of Iraqi civilians is thought to be 10 to 20 per cent higher this year than last, an estimated 38 dying each day. It is indicative of Iraq's lawlessness that the US army itself judges that 80 per cent of all violence is criminally motivated. Beyond that the new government faces a fractured and diverse insurgency estimated to have within its ranks anything between 20,000 and 50,000 fighters.

With the Iraqi government militantly refusing to negotiate with any of the diverse insurgent groups, hopes for US and British troop withdrawal focuses on "indigenisation", the creation of a new Iraqi security force with the strength and coherence to replace the 155,000 US troops currently deployed. But the creation of the new Iraqi army has not gone well. In the summer of 2004, the US military estimated that out of 115 police and army battalions, only three, after a year's training, could be assessed as "fully capable". Two months ago, America's most senior army officer in Iraq reduced that number to one.

If those calling for a rapid reduction of coalition troops want further evidence of what will happen when they leave, they need look no further than the Ministry of Interior. Last week, in the centre of Baghdad, US troops found 173 prisoners in a ministry building. Many were malnourished. Some had been so badly tortured they could not walk. The ministry is one of the key government institutions that are meant to be stabilising the country. Instead it has been the focus for repeated reports of torture, violence and the deployment of sectarian death squads. It is one of the clearest examples of the consequences of hastily throwing together an ill- trained, ill-disciplined force in order to allow the occupiers to cut and run after declaring victory.

The US occupation of Iraq is clearly very unpopular. The only possible vindication for the calamitous invasion is the delivery of a better, more stable and prosperous future. Calling for speedy troop withdrawal in the vain hope that things will somehow miraculously get better once British and American troops have gone cannot deliver this.

An honest and sustainable approach to the unfolding tragedy would be, first, to admit that the situation is very bad and getting worse. Second, it would admit that the rebuilding of the Iraqi state and reconciliation of its population is beyond the resources or capacity of any one state, even the world's sole remaining super power.

Once these two things have been recognised, the only possible way out of the Iraqi nightmare is not a dishonourable abdication of responsibility, but the creation of a new truly international coalition to share the burden of helping the Iraqis move towards a brighter future. This would involve a multinational effort, organised through the United Nations, and an honest declaration to both the Iraqis and the wider world that this will take many years and a great deal of money to achieve.

Dr Toby Dodge teaches politics at Queen Mary, University of London. His books include 'Iraq's future: the aftermath of regime change'