Global Policy Forum

An Elephant in Two Rooms


By Gordon Robison

Mideast Analysis
January 18, 2006

In one sense it is simple. Everyone agrees that the United States should withdraw from Iraq. At its core, the debate between the war's supporters and opponents is essentially about timing. When President Bush says the US has no desire to occupy Iraq permanently many Arabs are skeptical, but the vast majority of Americans – even Bush's most vitriolic opponents – accept that statement at a basic level.

And there lies the seed of the next bitter conflict in both Washington and Baghdad. Because something you almost never hear discussed in either capital is what the term ‘withdrawal' actually means. For both Iraqis and Americans it is the elephant in the room – the issue we willfully ignore because discussing it honestly will only make a bitter political debate even worse.

The problem is that while everyone talks about ‘withdrawal' politicians of different stripes – in Washington and Baghdad alike – use the term to mean very different things. The politicians themselves all (well, mostly) understand this but, for a variety of reasons, rarely explain it to their constituents. Until now, this approach has had some utility for all concerned, but the time is coming when some uncomfortable questions will need to be confronted.

Let's start in America. The Pentagon's desire for permanent bases in Iraq is an ill-kept secret, even by Washington standards. From the US military's point of view the issue is urgent. Their large base at Al-Kharj, south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was closed a few years ago. Uzbekistan's government recently told the US to leave. Turkey – a NATO member – demonstrated in 2003 that its political agenda differs from Washington's in key respects, and the remaining American installations up and down the Arab side of the Gulf are either small, semi-secret or both.

With Afghanistan remaining an active American deployment, relations with Syria deteriorating, and Iran emerging as a possible nuclear power it is easy to see why the US military wants to retain a significant presence in the region. None of this, however, has been clearly explained to the American people.

Most Americans calling for a withdrawal from Iraq have in mind something very clear cut: the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen pack up their stuff and leave. All of them. But the Pentagon, and more than a few politicians, envision bases that could keep thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – of American servicemen in Iraq long after our ‘withdrawal' from that country is completed. The problem may be that Pentagon planners see basing issues as separate from combat deployments. Whether average Americans make the same distinction is open to question.

More than a few Americans – and I'm not referring here only to war opponents – are in for a rude shock when they find that their anti-war member of congress is quite willing to keep American servicemen in Iraq indefinitely to staff those bases the Pentagon is so eager to secure.

Which brings us to Baghdad. Back in October a colleague and I had dinner with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at his heavily-guarded home in Baghdad's Jadriya district (an account of this dinner that I wrote for the Fox News website can be found in the ‘Articles' section of - posting date 30 October 2005).

One of the issues we discussed that evening was US bases. Talabani stated categorically that the US must keep "at least two" permanent bases on Iraqi soil. "We need these," he said, "to protect us against our neighbors". Talabani being a Kurd that seemed like a pretty clear reference to Turkey. When I mentioned H2 and H3, huge, remote airbase complexes far out in the country's western desert, one of Talabani's aides acknowledged that these were among the areas he had in mind. Both are so remote that twenty, perhaps even thirty-thousand American troops and support staff could probably be accommodated there with hardly anyone in the wider world ever being aware of their presence.

Talabani emphasized that the base issue was non-negotiable, and made it clear he regards two bases as a minimum (other Kurdish politicians have indicated the U.S. would probably be welcome to set up at least one base in their part of the country). More would be better.

The problem is that bases are equally non-negotiable for the vast majority of Iraq's Sunni Arabs. They, like many Americans, take a black-and-white view of the issue: ‘withdrawal' means the Americans leave. All of them.

Shiites come down in various spots between the Kurdish and Sunni position. Broadly speaking the religiously-oriented Shiite parties are with the Sunnis on this one. They want all of the coalition forces out of the country and differ with the Sunnis mainly over questions of timing. Secular Shiites are generally more willing to consider a long-term US presence in Iraq. It's worth noting, though, that secular parties of all stripes did not fare very well in last month's Iraqi elections.

At its core, the problem is that Iraqis and Americans alike tend to hear what they want to hear when the topic of ‘withdrawal' comes up; and politicians are playing to their constituencies rather than beginning a meaningful debate on the subject. This issue needs to be brought out into the public eye. Unaddressed, it has the potential to poison political debate in both the United States and Iraq. The longer we all ignore it, the more bitter its eventual resolution will be.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Permanent Bases
More Information on Withdrawal?
More Information on Sectarianism
More Information on Occupation and Rule in Iraq


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