An Open Letter to Juan Cole

[Note: Achcar is responding to the Sept. 23 entry by Juan Cole on his Informed Comment blog.]


Dear Juan,


Let me begin this second open letter to you by thanking you, first of all, for welcoming my previous one on your blog in a most democratic and friendly spirit. The reason why I am reacting for the second time to your comments is twofold. On the one hand, of course, it is because you are addressing again the issue of the withdrawal of US forces, to which, as a dedicated antiwar activist, I am very sensitive. On the other hand, if I do feel the need to reply to you in particular, while there are so many other articles posted or published every day with stands close to yours, it is because I take your arguments more seriously than most, as do many of your readers.


I have read today your reply to Michael Schwartz’s piece, which I regarded also as an indirect response to my previous rejoinder. To tell you the truth, I am even more surprised than when I read your ten points a month ago. The reason for my surprise relates, of course, to the arguments which you put forward. But it is also due to the fact that you chose the eve of an antiwar demonstration that promises to be extremely large (in light of the change of mood of the US population on the Iraq issue) to make points that — unwillingly, I am sure — echo Bush’s speech at the Pentagon yesterday (Sept. 22) trying to pre-empt the antiwar movement.


You point one more time to your experience in the region — “I lived in Lebanon in the early years of the civil war. … I have seen how these situations go out of control, with my own eyes” — in a way that may sound like an “appeal to (your own) authority.” Let me then reply to you, in my capacity as a Lebanese-born colleague, having a first-hand experience of the war in his country of origin from its very first sparks in 1975, through the Syrian intervention and up to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut, and their immediate aftermath. I shall start with your arguments about Iraq itself.


You wrote: “Iraq is not now having a conventional civil war, in which you’d have militias fielding 2,000 or 3,000 men against one another and vying over territory. If such a civil war broke out, of course the US military could stop it. A few AC-130s and helicopter gunships could scatter the infantry battalions.”


I am rather baffled at your confidence in asserting opinions on military issues. But let me assume that your expertise on military matters matches your expertise in Middle East history and politics. Even then, since you admitted, in your reply to Hitchens, your “lack of experience in Iraq,” you ought to be more cautious, I believe, in asserting opinions that require, at the very least, some knowledge of the terrain. Any person that has been to Iraq would tell you that, aside from the mountainous Kurdish area, this country is as flat as can be, made of cities and villages separated by vast stretches of desert or semi-desert land. In such terrain, you cannot have “infantry battalions” moving to invade an enemy’s territory unless they are equipped with appropriate military vehicles, especially tanks, and benefit from air cover. None of the Arab Sunni militias seems to have these capacities: only the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi regular army possess them to a certain degree (more the vehicles than air means, since the US purposely refuses to equip the Iraqi army with such weapons in order to remain “indispensable”).


Your scenario whereby “Ramadi and Samarra mount a large militia that marches on Baghdad (and) hooks up with Sunni Arab fighters in West Baghdad” is irrelevant to Iraqi conditions. This kind of “war of movement” is very unlikely in present-day Iraq, precisely because it takes not “militias fielding 2,000 or 3,000 men,” but very regular-like land-air military forces with a centralized command. Arab Sunni forces, which are highly heterogenous, would be crushed if they tried to get into a war of movement, having to fight on two fronts against the Kurds and the Shiites, taking hold of the “regular” army. What is much more likely and already happening in Iraq with respect to “civil war” (putting aside attacks against occupation troops) — either in a low-intensity or in an increasingly intensive form — are two kinds of violence: stealth attacks of the suicide-attack type, already at their utmost; and urban warfare in mixed areas.


Occupation troops have proved completely ineffective in preventing the first type and one can easily argue that their very presence makes suicide-attacks much easier to organize, as Michael Schwartz convincingly argued. And if ever some Sunni militia were planning “to kill the leaders of the elected government or Grand Ayatollah Sistani,” as you put it, it is definitely not the presence of US troops that would prevent it from trying, as suicide-attackers have proved capable of inflicting heavy casualties on US forces themselves within their own military camps!


As for the second type, it has dramatically increased and is still increasing day after day under the occupation: Arab Sunni militias are taking hold of some of the key Sunni-majority areas, and committing exactions against Shiite minorities. Arab Shia militias have also begun — though on a lesser scale due to Sistani’s strict attitude against sectarian retaliations — to commit exactions against Sunnis in Shia-majority areas. US methods for dealing with this second type of violence in Sunni areas, whether applied by US forces alone or along with Iraqi forces acting as their auxiliaries, rank among the clearest examples of counterproductive measures, as the experiences of Falluja and now Tal Afar prove. Both operations were followed by a dramatic increase in the level of daily violence in Iraq.


One could reasonably argue, as many already have, that the overall effect of a withdrawal of occupation forces would not be more violence, but less violence and an incentive for conflicting factions to settle for a compromise. Nevertheless, I believe it is only fair to acknowledge that no one can really tell what would happen after the occupation ends. If we admit that we cannot prophesy the future, we cannot then support a continued occupation on the basis of a purely hypothetical assumption, given that what we do know is that: 1) the worse-case scenario would only be a result brought by the occupation itself, and gets more likely the longer the occupation continues; 2) “divide and rule” is the oldest imperial recipe of them all; and 3) imperial powers have a terrible historical record in “pacifying” other lands.


Anyone aware of the record of imperialism, especially citizens of the occupiers’ countries who ought to know what their governments have been up to, should be demanding the withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq, and surely not giving credence to the pretexts used to prolong the occupation — under whichever form. This last remark refers, of course, to your assertion that “the US [or somebody, and unfortunately that means the US] has a duty to maintain a couple of air bases in the area along with some Special Ops forces to forestall a Himalayan tragedy in the near to medium term.”


Let me now come to the “lessons of history” part of your arguments. You write that when it seemed like “Phalangists were about to lose” in Lebanon, in 1976 “Syria came in and stopped the big battles and saved the Maronite Christians. … The Syrians used their tanks to stop the fighting.” Your memory is faulty here. When Syrian troops entered Lebanon in June 1976, with a US and Israeli green light, they indeed saved the Phalangists and their allies from defeat in the mountains, but that was at the cost of adding the much heavier war between Syrian forces and the Palestinian-Lebanese coalition to the continued war between the Phalangist forces and that coalition, without stopping the latter.


Instead of your simplistic summary — “the Syrians came in and stopped the big battles” — the truth of the matter is that the Lebanese war saw, from then on, some of its biggest battles — in the mountains, the Beqaa and the South — and some of its worse massacres. For example, the one in the Palestinian camp of Tell Zaatar in August 1976, which Phalangists invaded, thanks to the Syrian intervention (a precedent to Sabra and Shatila, committed under Israeli cover).


Syrian forces were headed into a quagmire in Lebanon, proving unable to suppress the resistance of the Palestinian-Lebanese alliance, had it not been for the political accord concluded between the Syrian regime and Yasir Arafat under Saudi sponsorship in October 1976. Only then did Lebanon enter into a prolonged period of truce with Syrian forces deploying peacefully in the areas that were controlled by the Palestinian-Lebanese alliance. The equivalent for Iraq would be an agreement to be concluded between the contending Iraqi forces, accepting the indefinite presence of US troops in their country (putting aside the huge difference between the perception of fellow Arab Syrians in Lebanon and the utterly alien US troops in Iraq). Such an agreement is very unlikely, to put it mildly!


You then add: “When civil war broke out in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it left a million dead, displaced 5 million persons from the country, and left millions more displaced internally. Iraq is similar in population size and in ethnic and ideological complexity to Afghanistan. A full scale civil war could be equally devastating to Iraq.” There is definitely a problem, here again, with your record of events: it was not the “civil war” that was most devastating to Afghanistan in the 80’s, but the Soviet occupation of that country trying to “pacify” it! This is a most boomeranging argument. In light of the “civil war,” Taliban rule, etc., that continued after Soviet troops were out, should one have argued, in your view, for the continued Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as preferred by the Kabul government? Or maybe did you want them replaced by US troops already back then? Of course, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, reparations and international assistance under UN supervision might have been helpful, but surely we wouldn’t have called for the Soviet Union to continue its occupation.


Most surprising is your conclusion: “But frankly I think it would be selfish to just bust into Iraq (which 75 percent of Americans supported), turn it upside down, set it on a course toward civil war, and then abruptly pick up our marbles and go home altogether. We did that in Afghanistan after 1989, and it did not turn out well for us.”


Since “we” in your final sentence only makes sense if it refers to Soviet troops, I am wondering, Juan, if you were some kind of hawkish anti-Gorbachev Stalinist in 1989? Joke aside, I find it odd that you worry about being selfish, but yet raise the argument about the dangers of $20 a gallon gasoline in order to justify the continued presence of US forces in Iraq. At no point did you refer to the will of the main people concerned: the Iraqis themselves. On this score, if we assume that the overwhelming majorities of the Kurds and the Arab Sunnis have symmetrically opposed positions on the presence of occupation troops, this would leave us with the Arab Shiites who are clearly divided on the matter, between those who agree on the temporary presence of foreign troops and those who want them out immediately.


I won’t try to assert that an increasing majority of the Shiites are for the latter position, not due to a lack of arguments, but because it amounts again to a vain guessing game. It should be sufficient that there is definitely no consensus on the occupation among Iraqis, and that a very substantial portion of the Iraqi population, at the very least, wants occupation forces out — including the overwhelming majority of those in whose territory occupation forces are most active militarily — to induce every democratic-minded person to join the marchers in demanding that occupation troops be brought home now.


With my best regards,



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