A new look at Iraq | AspenTimes.com
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A new look at Iraq

In our current debate over the Iraq war, some argue the conflict has now become “too important to lose.” But what does “losing in Iraq” mean? A victory for international terrorism? Let’s review some facts on the ground …Al-Qaida and similar terrorist groups had virtually no presence in Iraq until we invaded. If we departed tomorrow, al-Qaida’s street support would drop dramatically. Already, some Sunni leaders are turning against al-Qaida and its 1,300 foreign fighters (Iraq Study Group estimate). The formation of “al-Qaida in Iraq” resulted directly from our occupation of an Arab land.The Iraq conflict is NOT a war between Western civilization and terrorism. It is primarily a civil conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, a blood feud 1,300 years old. Instead of being the central front in the struggle against international terrorism, the Iraq war is a monumental distraction from that effort. Having the U.S. bogged down in Iraq is exactly what al-Qaida wants. It also suits the goals of Iranian and Syrian leaders.In recruiting terrorists, al-Qaida presents itself as leading the struggle (jihad) against “America’s war on Islam.” Al-Qaida’s propaganda continually repeats the refrain, “The U.S. ‘war on terror’ is really a war on Islam.” Our military occupation of Iraq plays into this twisted mindset. It’s one reason why 61 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on our armed forces.Over the next 20 years, our success in defeating terrorism will depend not on how many terrorists we kill (al-Qaida and similar groups are extremely good at replacing their fallen comrades), but rather on how skillfully we can convince the Arab street that we’re not waging war on all Muslims. The fewer Islamic lands the West is seen as “occupying,” the weaker al-Qaida will become.In truth, the only way we can “lose” the Iraq war is to stay bogged down in it – something our enemies would love to see.So, what should we do? The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report contained a remarkably comprehensive list of 79 specific steps we should take to extricate ourselves from Iraq. Incomprehensibly, we’re ignoring nearly all of them. Instead of sending yet more troops, something the ISG warned against, we should begin immediately to implement all 79 bipartisan recommendations, which are aimed largely at building national reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.We should be working particularly hard at engaging other Muslim nations in the reconciliation effort, because their help is essential to building a peaceful Iraq and because they understand full well the danger to the entire region of a full-scale war between Sunnis and Shiites.Hopefully, the ISG’s prescription will work, but in case it doesn’t, we must also have a Plan B.According to the U.N., over three million Iraqis have now been displaced internally or fled the country. Since de facto sectarian cleansing is already underway, one logical fallback plan would be to divide Iraq into three states. Not dividing Iraq and allowing an unrestrained civil war would invite intervention by other countries, thus risking a major regional conflict.Were Iraq divided, it would be essential to give Sunnis access to a share of Iraq’s oil revenues. To do otherwise would guarantee continued warfare. Some of Iraq’s oil fields might have to be “held in trust” for all Iraqis and guarded by international Muslim security forces under a U.N. mandate. Because most Iraqis say they don’t want a divided country, we could use Plan B as leverage to encourage national reconciliation, but be prepared to employ it if reconciliation efforts failed.Meanwhile, Afghanistan, not Iraq, represents the true contest with terrorism. The Taliban embraces al-Qaida and its worldwide terrorist campaign. As America draws down its troops in Iraq, we should strengthen our peace building in Afghanistan and greatly increase our economic development assistance.In defending Afghanistan, America should use Islamic arguments to justify itself. Because al-Qaida attacked us on 9/11, we have a Quranic self-defense argument for being in Afghanistan, and we should employ it skillfully.We cannot “lose” Iraq’s civil war. But we could lose the critically important effort to free Afghanistan permanently from the Taliban and al-Qaida.John S. Bennett is vice chair of Naropa University and was previously mayor of Aspen and vice president of the Aspen Institute.


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