Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Iraq and the War on Terror

Written by johnleemk on 7:32:10 am Aug 12, 2007.

The "war on terror" is one of those terms which irritates me considerably. Apparently coined by the administration of George W. Bush, soon to be the former President of the United States (only one-and-a-half more years!), it implies that the battle against terrorism was not being fought until after the events of 11 September 2001.

Regardless of the obviously propagandistic term's heritage or misleading connotations, it has been linked to the war in Iraq, which seems to become more and more of an American rather than coalition effort everyday. (Britain, formerly a stout ally of the United States in Iraq, has announced it intends to slowly start pulling its troops out, and the rest of the coalition is insignificant in terms of the proportion of troops there.)

As many American liberal commentators have sardonically pointed out, there were no terrorists in Iraq until the coalition invaded — and now terrorists are killing Americans and Iraqis almost everyday.

The American government and its supporters now nevertheless argue that pulling out of Iraq would be the wrong thing to do, because it would strengthen those terrorists, perhaps even gifting them a state to be an instrument of their bidding, as Afghanistan was to Al-Qaeda before the Taliban was deposed by a real coalition force.

However, there really are two dimensions to the present conflict in Iraq. The first is of course that of terrorism wrought by terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (yes, that is the full name of the group). The second is that of the civil war between Sunni and Shia groups.

The frequent failure of Americans to appreciate this was highlighted a year or two ago when one journalist interviewed several prominent figures in the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Asking them about the difference between Sunnis and Shias, he found that only one or two grasped and understood the nuances between them, and the role they play in Iraqi politics.

When Americans speak of the war in Iraq, they inextricably associate it with the war on terror. But why should this be so? Iraq is only one battleground in this war on terror; terrorists lurk in virtually every corner of the world. Afghanistan and Pakistan harbour just as significant terrorist threats, and that is only if we confine ourselves to fundamentalist deviant Muslim terrorists.

The question of whether the Americans should start planning to withdraw from Iraq is a pertinent one, and one that cannot simply be dismissed by resort to claims that Iraq and thus the entire region will fall into the hands of fundamentalist Muslim terrorists if the Americans pull out.

In the first place, most proposals for withdrawal make strong provisions for American forces to remain in the region, possibly even patrolling the waters near Iraq, ready to return should it be necessary to crack down on potential threats.

Another faulty assumption is that an Iraqi government of terrorists would stand. In reality, most Iraqis have little love lost on terrorist groups; many of them comprise mainly foreign Muslim radicals whom the Iraqis dislike and distrust.

What ought to worry people is the possibility of the Shia winning this bloody civil war, and after turning out the terrorist groups who are not to their liking, ally themselves with states like Iran and Syria to destabilise the Middle East.

The actual potential for instability, however, does not seem to be too high in my opinion. If these countries actually try to do something stupid like harbour real terrorist threats, plot some attack on another country, or whatnot, the Americans will have a real casus belli to topple their governments, probably with United Nations approval.

There will probably be significant sabre-rattling, but not much in the way of actual concrete harm. At the moment, Iran and Syria appear to have been destabilising the region mostly by indirectly supporting terrorist groups in Iraq — something that would not cause significant damage to American interests if not for the fact that there are American soldiers in Iraq currently.

I dare not propose a real solution to the Iraq conundrum, at least in part because I fear there is no solution. I have not studied the issue enough to say if an American withdrawal is the right thing to do.

What I do know is that probably any decision made will be fraught with huge trade-offs between things like Sunni lives and Shia lives; Iraqi lives and American lives; and so forth. It is morally wrong to see this civil war continue in Iraq, but how much are the Americans contributing to actually quelling and ending this war?

It seems that all the Americans are doing in Iraq is containing the civil war, not ending it. They are fighting terrorists in Iraq, but there is nothing to suggest these groups could pose a significant terrorist threat outside the Middle East; indeed, there is a good chance they would fall apart without the Americans to oppose, since they all seem to have conflicting aims.

Without a proper Iraqi government, instead of the shambles Iraq has at the moment, the actual chance of resolving the terrorism issue is very slim. This is thus a political battle, not a military one, as the American commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, has noted.

Whatever the solution to this whole Iraqi enigma is, it does not lie in bluster about threats of global terrorism and the need for more boots on the ground to fight such phantom threats. If there is an answer to the question of Iraq, it lies in examining what the American military presence in Iraq is supposed to accomplish, whether it can accomplish those goals, and most importantly, addressing the crucial political problems currently manifesting themselves in the violence between Sunnis and Shias.

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