Quiet Iraq exit won't have a replay in Afghanistan

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Rarely in US history has the end of a war been marked with less fanfare than the withdrawal of the last troops from Iraq in time for Christmas. Indeed, you could almost be forgiven for failing to notice it at all, so arbitrary does the timing seem.

US interests in Iraq will be no different in the first week of 2012 than they are now. Iraq's government remains shaky, and the dangers of instability and civil war remain. About 16,000 Americans are still there, too, including an unspecified number of military contractors who bear arms.

What happened? How, exactly, does an eight-and-a-half-year war end with no one noticing?

The immediate answer is a failure to communicate. The agreement between the Iraqi and US governments about troop numbers was scheduled to expire at the end of the year, and a new one was needed. The US demanded that any new status of forces agreement give its troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Based on several prior rounds of negotiations, the Iraqis thought they knew the script. The US would compromise, accepting de facto immunity without firm legal guarantees. That would allow troops to remain and also let the Iraqi government tell its voters that the country had refused immunity to the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.

When the US threatened to pull its troops, as it had in the past, the Iraqis didn't believe it. But this time, the Barack Obama administration was very happy to allow the Iraqis to demand withdrawal. This absolved the White House of the charge that it had abandoned Iraq before it was ready for true self-determination.

A convenient withdrawal

From the standpoint of principle, the Obama administration can't be faulted. Whatever we owe Iraq after invasion, occupation and botched nation-building, surely we must leave when its elected government tells us to get out.

The withdrawal was also good politics. The "home for Christmas" line will be forgotten after the new year. But the bottom line is that no one on the political spectrum can criticize the withdrawal.

Republicans would like to focus the public's attention on the struggling economy. The last thing they want is to remind voters that their party initiated the war of choice that helped spend us into the poorhouse. Nor would they like to see President George W. Bush's unfortunate "Mission Accomplished" episode freshly remembered.

Democrats, for their part, think they need to keep quiet about Iraq for a different reason: anticipatory worry about Afghanistan.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan is still a couple of years away. But it's likely consequences are much more troubling than those we can expect in the near future in Iraq.

All the Iraqis need to do for Obama is to avoid a full-on civil war before the presidential election in November. The Afghans actually need to create a stable, functioning government that will not fall to the Taliban. If they don't, a second Obama administration, if there is one, is going to be plagued by disaster that will make the fall of Saigon look modest by comparison. The Democratic Party will almost surely pay a price.

Even the Iraqis won't have an easy time of it. Exactly one day after the Americans left, the Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri Kamil al-Maliki turned on its Sunni partners in what was supposedly a government of national unity. It issued an arrest warrant for a vice president and demanded a no-confidence vote in Parliament for a deputy prime minister, the two highest ranking Sunnis in the country.

These decisions, and their timing, can only be read as a Sicilian message to the Sunni minority: Your leadership sleeps with the fishes.

Power-sharing ruse

Maliki is gambling that the Sunnis are too weak to restart the insurgency and too wary of al-Qaeda infiltration to rely on those bloodthirsty allies again, as they did in the years of civil strife before the US military surge. The high stakes gamble tells the world that coexistence was a front to please the Americans. The Sunnis who bought into power-sharing were suckers -- and now they are no longer needed.

Even if no one in the US seems to be watching, one can be confident that the Taliban are. The so-called reconciliation process in Afghanistan is supposed to persuade the Taliban to join some sort of national unity government and renounce their al-Qaeda connections. If they go along, the US could withdraw without appearing to leave the Afghans to their fate at the hands of resurgent Taliban.

The question for the Taliban has always been whether the process offers them any advantages compared with waiting out the US and trying to take out the government of President Hamid Karzai. The situation of the Sunnis in Iraq shows the disadvantages of cooperation clearly enough: Give up your arms, and you are vulnerable to being suppressed. The US might be willing to make friends with you, but its main objective is to provide cover for its withdrawal. Erstwhile enemies will not be so forgiving -- especially if they believe their survival depends on getting rid of you.

Add to this that the Taliban probably believe they can eventually defeat the Afghan army, and you can see how dim the prospects for national reconciliation really are.

The Taliban aren't delusional. Who really believes that Karzai on his own -- even with another hundred thousand lightly trained Afghan troops -- could win a war that the US military hasn't?

Barring some huge change in circumstances, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will be followed by intensified war. US air support can delay the inevitable, but it cannot defeat the Taliban. They will continue their strategy of guerilla war fought on their own terms. And their Pakistani supply lines will flow more freely than ever.

If and when the Taliban win, things will get very ugly very fast. Afghans who allied themselves with the US will be executed. Girls will be banned from school, and worse. The Taliban have no doubt learned a thing or two in their decade of war against the world's superpower, but tolerance is unlikely to be high on the list. The next US withdrawal won't escape public notice.

Noah Feldman
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of "Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices," is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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