Mother Jones: If and when a decision is made to withdraw or draw down, what is a realistic time frame for actually doing that?
John Pike: That depends on your understanding of the source of political violence in Iraq. It depends on your vision of what would be an acceptable end state in Iraq. I can give you some bookends. One bookend would suggest that the only real problem in Iraq is the Americans, and the political violence in Iraq, much of it is directed toward Americans or is the consequence of violence directed toward Americans. And if the Americans would just leave, the anti-American violence would end and the Iraqis would settle their differences peaceably without significant international interference.
In that case, withdrawal is easy. Everybody gets in their Humvees and they load up the Humvee trailers with the rest of their stuff and give the keys to the facility to the nearest Iraqi commander and drive to Kuwait. It takes a couple of weeks and we’re out.
MJ: Turn over the bases and leave a lot of equipment behind?
JP: I don’t necessarily think so. The bases are just buildings. You are not going to take buildings with you under any circumstances. Some of this stuff, it was all hauled in on trucks and if you want to take it out you can haul it out on trucks or you can just declare it war surplus. There is some stuff that just isn’t worth moving.
MJ: Like what?
JP: A lot of these huts, you are going have to look at these huts to understand whether they can be economically disassembled. A lot of the tents might be approaching the end of their economic life anyway, even though you could fold them up and take them back.
MJ: What would the military do with things like ammunition?
JP: One issue goes into the interoperability of American matériel with Iraqi equipment. There is not much point in giving them a bunch of M16 ammo if they are shooting AK-47s. You would have a hard time figuring out who to give it to, because the Iraqi supply chain is not very well developed.
Also, we are starting to run into the possibility that we might have to take the Iraqis into account during our withdrawal. We are starting to have to take into account the possibility that they are not going to just stand by and watch it happen.
MJ: You mean we might have to fight our way out just the way we had to fight our way in?
JP: You could imagine that there would be one community of opinion that would say, “Give them a ceasefire so they will get out quicker.” There would be another community of opinion that would say, “We have to intensify our attacks on them so it will be seen as a defeated army retreating under fire, rather than an orderly withdrawal of a former occupying power.”
MJ: So basically humiliate us? Humiliate the troops?
JP: Yes, as much as possible. Now that could slow things down because half of the people over there are fobbits; they have never been off the base. And half of the vehicles over there are tactical vehicles that have some kind of ballistic protection, but the other half have not been designed to go outside the wire. And then the question arises, what would constitute the retreat of a defeated army in the eyes of the American people versus the orderly withdrawal of a former occupying power? That is to say, just exactly how much return fire are we going to have to provide? How much protective firepower are we going to have to provide to get those people out of there in good order, so that we will not have the appearance of retreating in defeat?
MJ: Is the safest route out the way we came in, through Kuwait?
JP: You have a couple of highways, and you don’t hear about those convoys getting ambushed because they have robust route security on those highways. But then you start talking about all these other supply routes, some of those roads are not very secure. If the enemy was determined to make some home videos for YouTube showing the Americans fleeing in defeat, they might try to put on a pretty good show.
If it starts to look like a retreating defeat, then people are going to start trying to figure out whose idea this was here in town and nobody will want to own up to that. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people think a defeat of the American Empire is just what the world needs.
MJ: So, under the scenario that you were talking about earlier, basically we just get out as quickly as we can.
JP: We are backing off from that bookend as we understand that the get-out-of-there-in-a-few-weeks scenario basically assumes that we don’t have to worry about the Iraqis shooting at us, that we don’t have to worry about who we give custody of what we leave behind to, that we are not concerned about these little acts of defilement that the Palestinians had such fun with in Gaza.
If we withdraw from whatever facilities we have been using in Fallujah and the next day Al Qaeda in Iraq raises the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iraq over the former American headquarters, how is that going to lead on the evening news?
MJ: What choices will we be left with?
JP: That’s a good question. Let me give you the other bookend. American forces in South Korea are just now in the process of moving into permanent quarters.
The plan is that the Iraqi security forces manage to get themselves whipped into shape and the Americans go back inside the wire. The American body count drops off and, basically, the war is no longer an important issue. They have 160,000 or so troops over there now and they keep it at 160,000 over the next summer and they start pulling them out before the election. Peace is at hand. Peace with honor and all that stuff. They have 75,000 combat troops over there and 75,000 support troops, and they manage to get the combat troops out by the end of ’09. The support troops have to stay there for quite some time after that. They need to keep the support troops there until they manage to get an Iraqi supply chain that won’t steal everything. That will take years. I hope it won’t take decades, but it’s going to take years. It has already taken years.
You are going have to maintain at least a few brigades of heavy forces as the Republican guard. Because the dilemma that you have in Iraq is how you can have a security force that is strong enough to keep the place down to a dull roar but yet not so strong as to brush away the elected institutions. The ultimate guarantor of a democratic form of government in Iraq is going to be the American Army. Until these folks acquire the habits of American democracy, there is always going to be the danger that some guy in a mustache is going to turn up on TV one day saying, “I am in charge. I have all the guns.”
This country does not have an air force or an army in any meaningful sense. And what do you call a country that has no air force and no army?
JP: Well, you would certainly call it a protectorate. It’s a protectorate and whose protectorate is it going to be? If it is not the protectorate of the United States, you almost make it by default Iran’s protectorate. And how many people are there in Iraq who want to be stooges of Iran? Not many.
MJ: Now we are talking about the whole regional aftermath.
JP: Now we are starting to think that maybe if the Americans just packed up and left, the post-withdrawal scenario is not sweetness and light. Let’s think of what we’ve been up to over the last fifteen years. We have just been mopping up after the Ottomans. Yugoslavia was one of these rigged Ottoman things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately made no sense. The same thing with Iraq. Except there are differences between Bosnia and Iraq. In Bosnia there was nothing worth fighting for, where there is something worth fighting for in Iraq because there is no oil in Sunnistan. Ethnic cleansing is not just going to be to stabilize the front; it’s going to be over who controls the oil.
MJ: The Saudis have already said they would equip and fund the Sunnis.
JP: Well, I don’t know what the Saudis would do, but I don’t think anybody is eager to find out.
MJ: Is Turkey the issue?
JP: I think the Kurds would say, “You guys can do this, figure it out amongst yourselves, but we are out of here.” At which point, Turkey is going to say, “There is not a chance in hell of that.” Oil is at $70 a barrel now. What do you think it will go to? $100 or $150. What do you think the Chinese economy is going to do with oil at $150 a barrel? Does anybody want to find out?
So, the other bookend is that the Americans will be there for a long time. There are no such things as permanent bases, but why are we still in South Korea? We are still in South Korea because we have been in South Korea for so long that our presence in that country has just become part of the regional security architecture.
MJ: What about the idea of a partition in Iraq?
JP: There are vast stretches of the country that are ethnically mixed and anybody who proposes partition either into independent states or a loose confederation is also endorsing mass ethnic cleansing. Partition is a synonym for ethnic cleansing.
MJ: The division seems to be happening on its own right now.
JP: That’s what’s called ethnic cleansing, dispossessing people of their homes and land. It’s telling people, “Hey, you’re living on the wrong side of the line.”
MJ: What will happen with the war if a Democratic president is elected in the United States?
JP: I think there will be an agonizing reappraisal. I think they will discover that we are stuck. I think they will continue Mr. Bush’s drawdown of combat troops and set a realistic goal to withdraw American forces from day-to-day operations by the midterm election. Get the total number of Americans in country below 100,000 by the midterm election and get it down to 50,000 by the end of their first term. After that, it seems that the issue will fade.