Ten More Years in Iraq

As the September date for the report on the effects of the surge in Iraq approaches, the right has been ginning up the rhetoric over what happens if the United States withdraws from the country. But almost no symmetrical consideration is given to the scenario of what happens if the United States stays. “The surge is working; we need to give it more time,” or “The United States is making progress in Iraq; our soldiers need to be given the opportunity to finish their mission there,” or some such thing is what one hears. But that’s more or less the extent of the scenario for staying. So we stay. But what then? The way the dialog around the issue is happening it’s as if deciding to continue in Iraq means the surge will get another four or five months and then … and then … and then thoughts trail off.

But war opponents should point out that the calculation isn’t withdraw, genocidal civil war ensues versus stay, no further conclusion. Some people are thinking about what staying in Iraq means and it’s not what anyone signed up for back in 2003.

For instance, the Washington Post reports on the findings that Representative Jan Schakowsky (Democrat-Illinois) brought back from her recent visit to Iraq (“ After Iraq Trip, Unshaken Resolve,” The Washington Post, 26 August 2007):

Rep. Jan Schakowsky made her first trip to Iraq this month, the outspoken antiwar liberal resolved to keep her opinions to herself. “I would listen and learn,” she decided.

At times that proved a challenge, as when Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told her congressional delegation, “There’s not going to be political reconciliation by this September; there’s not going to be political reconciliation by next September.” Schakowsky gulped — wasn’t that the whole idea of President Bush’s troop increase, to buy time for that political progress?

But the military presentations left her stunned. Schakowsky said she jotted down Petraeus’s words in a small white notebook she had brought along to record her impressions. Her neat, looping handwriting filled page after page, and she flipped through to find the Petraeus section. “‘We will be in Iraq in some way for nine to 10 years,’ ” Schakowsky read carefully. She had added her own translation: “Keep the train running for a few months, and then stretch it out. Just enough progress to justify more time.”

“I felt that was a stretch and really part of a PR strategy — just like the PR strategy that initially led up to the war in the first place,” Schakowsky said. Petraeus, she said, “acknowledged that if the policymakers decide that we need to withdraw, that, you know, that’s what he would have to do. But he felt that in order to win, we’d have to be there nine or 10 years.”

And Ted Koppel relates a private conversation in which Senator Clinton relates some of her thoughts about staying on in Iraq (“A Duty to Mislead: Politics and the Iraq War,” National Public Radio, 11 June 2007):

I ran into an old source the other day who held a senior position at the Pentagon until his retirement. He occasionally briefs Senator Clinton on the situation in the Gulf. She told him that if she were elected president and then re-elected four years later she would still expect U.S. troops to be in Iraq at the end of her second term.

Ten years. Is anyone prepared for another ten years in Iraq?

If the United states were to stay in Iraq for the next ten years, that would make it by far the longest war in U.S. history, nearly twice as long as the Vietnam war (168 versus 90 months). Say we simply project forward the current casualty rate. There are all sorts of problems with this, but also some reasons that this is probably a pretty good basis for such a calculation. Today the confirmed total U.S. killed is 3,724. So if the United States stays in Iraq for the next ten years the total by then will be 13,000 Americans killed. The cost of the war to date has been $450 billion. A simple linear projection puts the cost at the end of the next ten years at $1.5 trillion, which would be not bad considering some have been projecting $2 trillion.

Those are the costs to the United States of staying. Iraq Body Count puts total Iraqi deaths since the onset of the war at 70 to 77 thousand. In another ten years that would amount to between 245 and 270 thousand Iraqis killed. But Iraq Body Count only tallies directly reported deaths in the English language media and requires two independent sources before counting a death, so this is a very conservative number.

A quarter of a million Iraqis may be killed even if the United States stays in Iraq. War supporters talk of a bloodbath that will ensue if the U.S. withdraws. Do they think that it will be worse than a quarter of a million? And if they do think that it will be a worse number, can they really argue that by reducing the death toll from their hypothetical number to a hypothetical quarter-million, the U.S. will have prevented a tragedy?

But who knows what could happen. The insurgency might radically accelerate. The U.S. could be drawn into a war with Iran; that could spread to Afghanistan. Pakistan might be destabilized by all this. The Saudis could intervene in Iraq. Turkey could go to war with a Kurdistan hiding under the skirt of the United States. Or things might improve. Judgment about the future is difficult. But the debate should cease to be between the options of withdrawing and terrible consequences versus staying and don’t think any further about it.

Update: Kevin Drum (“Nine or Ten Years,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 26 August 2007) has been reading Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack ‘s Iraq visit report (“Iraq Trip Report,” Brookings, August 2007) and Messrs. O’Hanlon and Pollack’s prediction for the surge is,

Over the long term, the United States must be looking to draw down its force levels in Iraq overall — probably to 100,000 or fewer troops — by about 2010/2011.

That’s two and a half more years at current force levels. Then we can go back to what was, prior to the surge, merely a heightened troop presence for an indeterminate period of time. Mr. Drum points out, “that suggests he doesn’t think total withdrawal will happen until, say, 2016/17 or so. In other words, nine or ten years.” Mr. Drum also points out that historically prolonged counterinsurgency wars have had negative consequences for nations prosecuting them.