Continuing still further on some of these questions.
If the answer to the question, “What is the declared aim of the United States in Iraq?” is, “The establishment of a stable liberal democracy”, that’s not a sufficient answer. Because it doesn’t say how important that aim is, about what kinds of predictive standards we could use to judge whether it was being achieved, and whether or when we might judge that it had failed to be achieved.
This isn’t a war aim like “the unconditional surrender of the military and government of an enemy” or “taking and holding a particular territory or resource”. The achievement of those aims speaks for itself. This objective is different.
If the answer is, “Any and all prices are worth paying for this objective, and there is no predictive standard for failure which will be acceptable,” then that’s a laughably Green-Lanternish or pony-seeking answer. There’s no point in an ongoing conversation at that juncture.
I’m equally interested, however, in a tough and specific public conversation about what the forces fighting American troops in Iraq see as their aims. I don’t assume that state or political actors are rational, or have a transparent understanding of their own interests: they’re just as enmeshed in cultural, institutional and historic frameworks as anyone else.
But if I were an insurgent leader in Iraq who had a Machiavellian cast of mind, I might see the situation this way:
1) If I were associated with the Mahdi Army or other Shi’a militia groups or political associations, and I were strongly allied to and in conversation with the political leadership in Iran, I might well want US troops to remain in Iraq, off-balance and tied down enough so that they don’t interfere much with my activities, but not aggravated enough by my own activities that they make me an urgent target. Why? Because I can’t imagine a greater gift to the Iranian leadership than the embattled presence of US troops in Iraq. What better guarantee against a military attack on Iran could you ask for? If US troops are barely able to hold the situation together when Shi’a militias are only providing them with lower-level resistance, then the threat of a coordinated all-out resistance from both Shi’a militias and the Shi’a political and religious leadership in Iraq is a serious one. Beyond that, keeping US forces a bit off-balance while holding out hope for strategic partnership is also potentially a great way to use US military power to indirectly (or even directly) shore up Shi’a control of the central Iraqi state. If the US were to leave, then it would fall directly to more militant Shi’a interests to suppress or control Sunni communities and institutions, a much dicier business. But you don’t want to give the US an free hand, either, which means occasional flexing of muscles and keeping US forces under pressure.
2) If I were associated with al-Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the ‘foreign’ or international Islamicist militant presence in Iraq), then the presence of US troops is a godsend. It gives me a nearby target that I can hit with great persistence for big propaganda and mobilization benefits. It’s not just their presence: the fact that US troops are occupiers who have tortured prisoners, directly or indirectly caused the deaths of many civilians, and so on provides a propaganda victory before the insurgents have to do anything. Beyond that, however, almost anything these insurgents do while the US remains is a win-win situation. Keeping pressure on US forces, tying up US resources? Makes it harder to exert power in Afghanistan and Pakistan, let alone other possible theaters of operation. Killing US troops? Military and propaganda value. Spectacular acts of mass killing? Makes the US look feeble and unable to provide security, as long as the US is there and promising to stop such acts. Losing some of my own forces? Big deal, they’re dumb, young, idealistic volunteers from all over the world. More where they came from. This group isn’t in it for the sake of Iraqis, so they have no need to care whether or not Iraqis would like the US to withdraw. Of course, if the US withdraws, this group also satisfies a war aim–that’s a major embarassment for the US, roughly like the Soviets leaving Afghanistan. But there’s no particular reason to want the US gone.
3) Sunni nationalist insurgents. This is the only group that I can see has a genuine, sustained interest in a US withdrawal, and whose military and political actions might, in a clear-headed or calculated sense, be directed strongly at that objective. But at the same time, this group might well be interested in a political settlement, which is maybe what is starting to happen right now, because they might be able to leverage US desperation for some kind of stability in Iraq into a disproportionate allocation of state power or resources, something they probably can’t achieve on their own with military power if the US withdraws. On the other hand, the only way to buy that favorable settlement is to demonstrate the ability to inflict serious damage on US forces, and to continually remind the US of that capacity if there’s any sign it’s being taken for granted.
When I look at any possible endgame, I see two powerful and important antagonists that would just as soon see American troops remain, not as allies but as targets. So here’s another area where even if we set aside moral concerns and political differences, you could make a plausible argument that withdrawal frustrates rather than satisfies some of the US’ antagonists in Iraq.