There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
It isn't the crisis-ridden process of creating an Iraqi constitution, holding a referendum, and then elections (again) in Iraq; down that bumpy path lies a future of continued insurrection and the likely breakup of Iraq, with beleaguered U.S. forces vainly trying to suppress the insurgency and prevent catastrophe.
Still, there is indeed a way out of Iraq. An international conference on the war in Iraq, convened in Amman, Jordan, under the auspices of the United Nations, with the support of Russia and China, could bring together the United States, the current interim government of Iraq, and representatives of nearly a dozen Iraqi resistance groups to hammer out an agreement on a cease-fire and a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq within a year.
Such a scenario might sound optimistic, but based on many discussions with current and former U.S. diplomats, military officers, and intelligence officials, plus leading Iraqis and officials of foreign governments, it's not impossible. To be sure, there is no willingness at all at the White House to seriously pursue a negotiated exit strategy for Iraq. On the other hand, as it becomes clear that there is no possibility that the war in Iraq can be won militarily, and as U.S. casualties mount and U.S. public opinion sours on the war (and as politicians face 2006), the United States is fast approaching the point at which it will have no other choice but to negotiate its way out. In the bowels of the State Department and among certain circles in the Pentagon itself, there are, according to informed sources, already rumblings about looking for an exit. In that context, I offer the following step-by-step outline of one way it might be done.
First, the United States must initiate unilateral confidence-building measures aimed at creating the preconditions for negotiations with the resistance. To demonstrate good faith for future negotiations, and to create room for a leadership of the mostly Sunni Arab opposition to emerge openly, the United States must issue an amnesty that is as wide-ranging as possible. It should cover tens of thousands of former Baath Party and Iraqi government officials for pre-2003 charges, except for a handful of very senior Iraqi officials and those who can be convicted of atrocities with hard evidence. It must also include all members of the ongoing resistance, except for those terrorists guilty of atrocities against civilians. The United States must take the death penalty off the table for Saddam Hussein and other top officials, free some of the high-value prisoners who cannot be specifically linked to serious crimes, and release most (if not all) of the more than 15,000 detainees held at Abu Ghraib and the two other prison camps in Iraq run by U.S. authorities.
Second, the United States must announce a unilateral halt to U.S. offensive military operations and the retreat of U.S. forces to established positions inside bases in Iraq, with only force-protection actions authorized. At the same time, a token but significant withdrawal of U.S. forces could be announced -- perhaps 20,000 troops -- to take place within, say, 90 days. Most important, the United States should declare its willingness to explore unconditional talks with the Iraqi opposition, not including the jihadists and forces associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi but including the rest of the resistance: Iraqi nationalists, Baathists, former Iraqi military officers, enlisted men, and others.
As in Vietnam, the United States must acknowledge that it cannot win the war militarily, and needs to commit itself to a negotiated political solution. Our partners in the peace talks will be the nascent Iraqi nationalist opposition forces, mostly Sunni but including many secular Shia. Despite the Bush administration's efforts to portray the resistance as made up of terrorists, the bulk of the Iraqi opposition is distinct from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists. The resistance is not faceless, it is not invisible, and it is not disorganized. In July, a courageous former Iraqi minister of electricity, Aiham al-Sammarae, visited Washington, where he met with U.S. officials at the State and Defense departments and made a brilliant presentation at the Middle East Institute, where I interviewed him. In recent months, while avoiding al-Zarqawi and Co., al-Sammarae --who leads the National Assembly for the Unity and Reconstruction of Iraq -- has made contact with 11 separate Iraqi resistance groups, and at least four of the most important resistance groups -- including the Baathist Jaish Muhammad -- gave him a formal letter declaring their willingness to pursue talks with Washington and the interim regime in Baghdad. Their demands, says al-Sammarae, center on a fixed timetable for an end to the U.S. occupation and the reduction of Iranian influence, both overt and covert, in Iraqi affairs. “The resistance wants the Americans out,” he said. “And they want the Persians out.” (A more complete account of al-Sammarae's presentation can be found in my account here, and at the Middle East Institute here.)
A successful start to negotiations with the resistance would, admittedly, have a high degree of difficulty. First, it is not at all clear that the mostly Sunni resistance is ready to coalesce into a party ready for talks with the United States. Unlike Vietnam, there is no Hanoi-style central committee to run the show. To make it work, the United States would have to induce a wide spectrum of the insurgent leadership to come into the peace-talks umbrella, from the Sunni tribal leaders to the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Association of Muslim Scholars to the former Baathist military men to the community-based street fighters in places like Mosul, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Fallujah (but, of course, not including the al-Zarqawi jihadists, who are irredeemable). There have been scattered reports about the emergence of a neo-Baath Party in various Sunni strongholds, and there is at least one report that a rudimentary Baathist newspaper is being published clandestinely in Iraq. Some former senior Baathists, such as Naim Haddad, are said to be involved, and other former top Iraqi officials are widely believed to be coordinating parts of the resistance. So far, those few Sunnis who've agreed to join the Iraqi government or to take part in the constitution-writing exercise merely open themselves up to being branded as collaborators, so the coalition that the United States ends up talking to must include all but the most incorrigible Islamists or else it will shatter.
It is not as if the idea of an international conference on Iraq hasn't been proposed before. The Russian government has called for such a conference for more than a year, to include opposition groups. “We have favored the idea of bringing in the Iraqi opposition, the patriotic, nationalist opposition,” says a spokesman for the Russian UN Mission in New York. “We are not talking about the jihadists, but the legitimate nationalist forces.” A good venue for such a conference would be Amman, Jordan, which already hosts a large number of Iraqi exiles, including nationalists and Baathists, with contacts among the resistance groups inside Iraq. “It may be too early for the resistance to come together like that,” said one former U.S. intelligence official with wide-ranging experience in the Middle East. “But if they are, Amman would be the right place to try it.” Convening a conference in Amman also has an added advantage in that it could draw on the resources of Jordan's King Abdullah, who has excellent relations with President Bush and the U.S administration. “Abdullah probably has some people doing a lot of thinking on how to come up with a plan for exiting Iraq that he could present to the president,” speculates David Mack, a veteran U.S. foreign-service officer who is vice president of the Middle East Institute. “It's no secret that a lot of the opposition figures from Iraq conduct meetings in Amman.”
The model for the Iraq withdrawal negotiations would be the Paris peace talks that ended the war in Vietnam in 1973. By then it was obvious to all, including the U.S. military, that the Vietnam War was lost. By the same token, more and more American experts, including former senior intelligence officials such as William Odom and John Deutch, are coming to the conclusion that the Iraq War is lost. So far, however, the Bush administration seems intent on ignoring the intelligence provided by the U.S. intelligence community, which has repeatedly informed the White House that prospects for stabilizing Iraq under the current policy are close to zero. Over the past several weeks I've had extended conversations with former diplomats and intelligence officers about Iraq, and to a man (and woman), they were pessimistic, and blackly so. Over the past 18 months, according to Wayne White, the former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and principal analyst on Iraq from 2003-05, the intelligence community put out two National Intelligence Estimates on Iraq and an additional major supplement, all of which told the White House the truth: that the war in Iraq is not going well, and is likely to get worse. So the administration knows the truth, at least if its officials choose to believe their spies and analysts. Just as “the intelligence and facts” were being fixed around policy in 2002, it appears that in 2005 the Bush administration is once again ignoring its intelligence community and choosing to portray the war as progressing nicely. In its stubbornness, the Bush administration insists that its strategy in Iraq is victory.
The fact that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al. aren't calling for talks with the insurgents is bad enough. What's worse is that most people on the left -- liberals and mainstream Democrats -- aren't calling for such talks to begin. Many Democrats, even those who opposed the war, are now among those calling for the United States to stay in Iraq until some ill-defined victory is achieved, no matter how unlikely it may be. Others, who are willing to consider an early exit strategy, victory or not, are held back by other fears. Many of them seem convinced by the argument that whatever the merits of invading Iraqi in 2003, we are now engaged there and cannot abandon Iraq to the mess that we've made. They worry that if the United States withdraws from Iraq, the result would be an all-out civil war among three major ethnic and religious blocs.
But a negotiated end to the fighting in Iraq, as difficult as that may be, holds the promise that it could prevent the disintegration of Iraq into warring statelets and the outbreak of utter chaos (or outright civil war). (Despite the carnage in Iraq today, the violence has not yet reached the status of an all-out civil war, which could leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.) Talks in Amman, or Geneva, or at the United Nations, could serve as a vehicle for dissolving the current Iraqi interim government and holding elections that could produce a far more legitimate and broad-based regime in Baghdad. Such a regime would rest on three legs. First, it would lead to much more widespread Sunni participation in a 2006 election that would enfranchise the nationalist-Baathist resistance. Second, it would strengthen the secular Iraqi Shia, many (perhaps most) of whom reject the sort of fundamentalist theocracy being imposed in Basra and southern Iraq by the gunmen and militias of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its ally, the Dawa Party of Ibrahim Jafari. And third, it would block the more expansionist designs of the Kurds, many of whom now believe they can get away with the creation of an independent Greater Kurdistan that would seize control of Kirkuk Iraq's northern oil fields.
Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are coming fast and furious now, so let's consider one more. Once again, like after the Tet Offensive, the recent wave of bloody assaults across Iraq has made it clear that the resistance, far from being in its “last throes,” is not being defeated. Once again, a Nixon-like American administration is refusing to sue for peace and talk with the insurgents, insisting that all olive branches be delivered to the offices of the interim (and utterly illegitimate) ersatz government in the modern-day Saigon that is Baghdad. And once again, it is perfectly clear what the United States has to do: It must abandon its deformed offspring in Baghdad, the hapless regime of Shia fanatics and Kurdish warlords, and pray that it can establish direct talks with the people it is fighting.
Robert Dreyfuss is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. He covers national security for Rolling Stone, and writes frequently for The Nation and Mother Jones. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, will be published this fall by Henry Holt/Metropolitan.