The best strategy now is to withdraw our troops

Of course there's a problem of disengaging, but there's a bigger problem in just going on

Adrian Hamilton

The Independent

30 September 2004

Someday we may have a serious debate about Iraq and its future. But not if the British Government has anything to do with it. Tony Blair's distinction on Tuesday between those who saw terrorism in terms of a global battle against Muslim extremism and those who simply saw it as acts of isolated individuals whom we should "try not to provoke and hope in time will wither" was simply specious, not even worth a classroom discussion. His alternative vision, which would rope in every atrocity in a grand conspiracy by Muslim extremists, was pure Donald Rumsfeld, the old Cold War relived, only this time with Islamists rather then reds under the beds.

Unfortunately, it will be no better today when the Labour conference debates a motion on withdrawal from Iraq. Withdrawal? All too easily ministers will paint a picture of opponents of present policy wanting to cut and run, to leave the Iraqis to chaos and disaster. Whatever the differences over the reasons for going to war, to oppose policy now would be betrayal, goes the Blair argument. We are where we are. Your only option is to support us.

It's a false choice, as well Blair knows. With violence in Iraq spreading, with half the Sunni areas outside government control and with the death toll of the US and British forces remorselessly rising, you can't pretend that all is going well in Iraq.

Government spokesmen would have us believe that this violence is limited in extent and largely fuelled by outside forces, the tactics of a few nihilistic extremists who want to disrupt the path to democratic elections next January and must be prevented from doing so. That is not the picture being painted by the reporters on the ground, or, according to reports, the latest intelligence estimates by the CIA, the state department or the army officer corps in Washington. According to the well-sourced leaks, the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July put as its best-case scenario a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months and, in the worst case, total civil war.

Leave aside the question of whether we were right or wrong to invade in the first place, it is perfectly fair now to ask what the Government believes our troops are achieving there and when does it see them returning home.

This is not a matter of cutting and running, betraying the Iraqis or any other of the cheap phrases used by ministers to characterise the legitimate questions of those concerned by this war. The brutal problem is that, on all the evidence of reporters and opinion polls, the British, with the US troops, are regarded as an occupying force, which the Iraqis themselves feel have failed in their task of providing security and whom they want to leave.

Easy enough to cry: how can we do that when the security situation is so bad? More honest to ask: if we are now part of the problem, wouldn't our going help to solve it?

Of course there is a problem of how you manage disengagement, but there is a bigger problem of just going on as we are, plodding on in a war of attrition, making new enemies as the US tries to bomb the terrorists out of existence. Announcing an exit strategy doesn't involve a sudden retreat in the manner of Vietnam, although if we delay it too long it might. It means making a clear and definite statement that we will leave the country as soon as elections are held and a new government is in place.

In the meantime, we will hand over to the UN as the primary agency for organising those elections and ensuring their security. It is too late now to believe that the presence of Muslim forces, the troops of neighbouring countries or anyone else will be, of themselves, acceptable to the Iraqis. But it is not too late to gather an international force that is clearly there to help elections and to pave the way for US and British withdrawal. All it is waiting for is the open admission of the UK and the US that we have had our day and are making way for others.

At the same time, the UN could also call a conference of Iraq's neighbours in the region, not to sort out their domestic problems but to commit the region to the support of the election results and to guarantee the boundaries as they exist, stopping any spill-over of tension into the Kurdish or Shia regions of the adjoining countries.

It won't be perfect; it won't necessarily prevent a long and appalling struggle for power within Iraq. And it requires the two things that Tony Blair is most unwilling to do: to admit we're part of the problem rather than the solution and to adopt a position independent of the US.

But what is the alternative? It is to pretend that things in Iraq are far rosier than they are and to sign up to a Blair/Bush vision of global war between the West and "Muslim extremism" which will lead us to pre-emptive actions and confrontations we know not where.

Government ministers will try today, as they always try, to oil their way over the Iraqi debates with false appeals to loyalty and subtle arguments about there being "no alternative". But there is an alternative and if Labour Party members could but have the courage to demand it then, who knows, they might even encourage their parliamentary colleagues to do the same.