The Politics of Withdrawal from Iraq


In recent days, Jalal Talabani, the US-installed president of the US-installed government in Baghdad, told the press that the United States could withdraw up to 50,000 troops by the end of 2005. Talabani continued, stating that there are now enough Iraqi troops trained and ready to take over various security missions currently undertaken by US forces. The response to these claims by the White House has been publicly ambivalent as of this writing, but one wonders whether or not this could change if Bush’s poll numbers amongst US voters continue to decline. However, according to the Washington Post, unnamed military sources say that there are no discussions of withdrawal at the current time. In his varied meetings with the press over the past month, Bush has made similar statements.

As any follower of the news from Iraq knows, this is not the first time that some official in either the US government or its client regime in Baghdad has hinted at a withdrawal of some US forces from Iraq. Given the growing unpopularity of the US exercise in that country, these types of utterances are to be expected, but not believed. These declarations provide those who have misgivings about the war but who are unwilling to protest it a glimmer of hope that the war will be over without any struggle on their part. The seeming confusion at the top lends this portion of the populace the illusion that their government feels their discomfort. More importantly, it provides a false hope that this war was right after all. Indeed, if the US troops can get out of Iraq and have the Iraqis in Washington’s employ kill and imprison those who oppose Washington, then won’t the invasion and occupation have been successful? Despite the growing numbers of US residents opposed to the occupation, many still want to believe their government’s invasion was right even though they may now be tired of the war’s human and economic costs.

It is often instructive to look at history if one wants to discover possible futures. The current debate in the media over troop withdrawals and Iraqi force readiness reminded me of similar discussions during another US war over thirty years ago. Was I imagining things or did Washington and its client regime in what was then Saigon have a similar back-and-forth conversation in the media over US troop withdrawals from Vietnam? To satisfy my curiosity, I went into the New York Times archives and took a quick look at one year-1968. This was the year that began with the Tet offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh. There were upwards of 500,000 US troops in southern Vietnam. It was also a presidential election year in the United States and at least two candidates were running a campaign based partially on their opposition to the US war in Vietnam. In Saigon, there was talk on April 2, 1968 from the US-installed president, Nyugen van Thieu, about the “gradual withdrawal by the end of 1968” of some US military forces. Those troops would, of course, be replaced by southern Vietnamese military forces that would be combat ready after training from the United States. (NYT, 4/1/1968) Meanwhile, Thieu’s vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky, was lambasting those in the US calling for an immediate US withdrawal. According to a New York Times report dated May 1, 1968, Ky said those calling for an immediate withdrawal were betraying the “interests of their won people back home.” (NYT, 5/1/1968)

Like Talabani and his associates in Baghdad, Thieu and Ky were in power because Washington put them there and because the US military and its intelligence and civilian cohorts kept them there. Also like Talabani and the rest of the current Baghdad regime, Thieu and Ky knew that their power depended on Washington, yet in order to have a minimum of legitimacy in the eyes of their local supporters, they had to make statements that provided a veneer of independence. As subsequent events showed, that veneer was paper thin. Both men ended up elsewhere (Thieu to Taiwan, then England, then Boston and Ky to California) by 1975-taking only their ill-gotten riches with them. Riches they had stolen from the United States and their fellow Vietnamese.

Of course, just like there are similarities between the US war on Vietnam and its war on Iraq, there are also differences. One of the most glaring is that by the time the aforementioned statements from Saigon’s government were made, Washington was engaged in tentative peace talks with the National Liberation Front-Vietnam’s insurgents-and its supporters in Hanoi. This was in spite of the Saigon regime’s insistence that the NLF was not worth negotiating with and were nothing more than terrorists. The ability of the Front to put together a coherent political strategy and get it out to the entire world rendered Saigon’s arguments invalid, no matter how sympathetic Washington was to Saigon’s desire for total victory. To this point in Iraq, Washington has refused to even acknowledge its armed opposition as a legitimate political force. Both Washington and its clients in Baghdad continue to refer to the Iraqi resistance as terrorists and Al-Qaeda spinoffs and therefore not worthy enough to engage in negotiation. Of course, the lack of a public political face to the resistance-at least in the Western world-has not helped those forces opposed to the US regime in Baghdad combat Washington’s characterization. Perhaps, however, that is not their desire, believing instead that their audience is the non-Western world. If this is so, then their strategy probably does make sense. Another possibility, however, is that there is more disagreement than agreement over the political goals of the resistance and the only thing the various elements can agree on is that the US must be forced to leave. Unless and until the various elements of the resistance do present a public political face that Western governments and its media chorus cannot ignore, the resistance will continue to be dismissed by most of the Western public as so many sour grapes with unclear agendas.

Even after the Vietnamization of the war in Vietnam was well underway, Thieu, Ky, and most of the rest of the Saigon government remained adamantly opposed to any type of coalition government with the national liberation forces. Indeed, any southern Vietnamese official who even mentioned such a possibility soon found themselves silenced, one way or the other. A similar sentiment is repeated in Baghdad. Any politicians in the ruling circles who have brought up the possibility of including members of the resistance in the government seem to lose their audience, if not their portfolio. Some have probably even lost their freedom-we just haven’t heard about it because the Western press won’t report it (or don’t know about it because most of them only seem to report what they are told by talking heads inside the Green Zone). More often than not these disagreements are portrayed as religious and/or tribal differences, but underlying all differences of this sort is whether one collaborates with the occupiers or whether one doesn’t. Those who collaborate are seen as traitors by those who don’t, plain and simple. As far as the collaborators are concerned, the opposite is true. If the US military left, chances are greater that these two opposing sides would be more likely to negotiate and come up with some form of provisional coalition government. After all, those who are currently in power would have to depend on the Iraqi people-not the US government and its military-for their support. This fact alone would require them to communicate with those Iraqis who want nothing to do with the government as it is currently constructed. Either that, or face a conflict that might well make today’s carnage seem tame by comparison and probably place them in the gallows.

Now that the US military and its Iraqi subsidiary are chasing citizens from the town of Tal Afar and its surrounding regions, the US media has been obediently repeating Pentagon assertions that the resistance forces living in the area are either foreign or being trained in foreign lands, more often than not in Syria. While there is probably some truth to this assertion, the fact remains that guerrilla warriors can not survive without support from the local population. Ignoring the obvious hypocrisy of an occupying force decrying the possible existence of a foreign hand helping out the occupied country’s citizens engaged in resisting the occupier (didn’t the French help out the anti-British forces in colonial America?), the facts on the ground indicate that the US is more concerned about the Iraqis in the area under attack. Otherwise, why would they be forcing the civilians out of the town of Tal Afar via checkpoints set up and maintained by US and client Iraqi forces? If the example of Fallujah is being followed-and indications are that this is the case-not only are the civilians being forced from their homes, they are being photographed, fingerprinted and their retinas scanned before they are sent off to live in detention camps guarded by heavily armed soldiers. Meanwhile, press reports indicate that close to 2000 teenage boys and young men have been arrested, interrogated and their personal information entered into the database that the occupiers have been building ever since they detained their first Iraqi. This same database most likely contains the personal information of the aforementioned civilians, too. This form of surveillance is more complete than that of Saddam Hussein and his regime and its intentions no different-to identify, catalog, and destroy the opposition to the (current) regime.

All of the above begs the question: so what if we don’t like it, what can we do about it? The answer to that is simple: increase the pressure to get the occupying troops out now, not some imaginary time in the future. If we don’t, not only will the Iraqis continue to be chased out of their homes, imprisoned, and killed; US soldiers continue to maim and kill and be maimed and killed; so might Syrians and many others whose only real crime is living in a part of the world that the US wants to control. Our task is simple. It is the Iraqis who have the difficult one. Once the occupiers leave, they can tend to it.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:









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August 17, 2005


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: