Mother Jones: You recently wrote a book about Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Tell me about the parallels you see between Napoleon’s foray into the Middle East and our own experience in Iraq?
Juan Cole: The situations are actually remarkably similar. Bonaparte went into Egypt to forestall or curb the British, who were at that time seen as the major threat to republican France. It was felt that Britain benefited from its colonies overseas and its naval power in a way that was deleterious to France, which at the time didn’t have much in the way of colonies—that if you could take Egypt, you could interfere with the British lines of communication to India, and you might even be able to send an expedition to India. They took Egypt, they installed mainly the clerics in power, and then the Egyptian populace, the townspeople and the tribes, and at some points even the big urban areas, repeatedly rose up against them and inflicted heavy attrition on the French troops; they probably lost about 6,000 in the first year. Volunteers came from the area around Mecca, across the Red Sea to fight the French, so you had a kind of international jihad to get the French out of Egypt.
MJ: A little bit like what we’re seeing now.
JC: Yes. There were kidnappings, calls for ransom; the French beheaded their foes, their foes beheaded the French. Some of the symbolic violence was even similar. Ultimately, the French couldn’t stay there in the face of both popular uprisings and the Ottoman and British diplomatic and military alliance that invaded in 1801 and defeated the French forces. The whole thing ended ignominiously.
MJ: What other historical disengagements would a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq most resemble?
JC: Algeria. Between 1954 and 1962 the Algerians waged a guerrilla war to get the French out of their country. The French had taken Algeria in 1830. There were a million French and other colonists in Algeria and a big troop presence. In trying to prevent their expulsion, the French probably killed nearly a million people. And it was a dirty war on both sides. Algerians blew up French discos and civilian targets and the French committed massacres against Algerian townspeople and peasants. But in the end [Charles] de Gaulle recognized that it was just a losing proposition to try to stay there and withdrew—initially just his troops. His generals were furious about this and some even came up with an assassination plot. Once it became clear that the French colonists were going to have to live under an Algerian national government, they gradually emigrated. The withdrawal was bloody.
MJ: They had to fight their way out?
JC: They were under fire. Generally speaking, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will resemble cases of problematic decolonization. In the period between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, very large numbers of countries in Afro-Asia were decolonized by the British, the French, the Dutch, and so forth. In some instances it went relatively calmly, but in other instances there were massacres and firefights and it didn’t go well at all. Decolonization can be quite violent.
MJ: What about similarities to Vietnam? Do you see a people-hanging-off-helicopters type of scenario?
JC: That strikes me as a little bit unlikely, because in Vietnam it was a war with two sides and one side was winning. This is not a war with two sides. It’s hard to know how many sides there are. So the way that you could get the Vietnam kind of scenario, with a very messy withdrawal and people hanging off helicopters, would be if both the Sunni Arab guerrillas and the Shiite militias—not necessarily in alliance with one another, mind you—were simultaneously attacking the U.S. The U.S. is going to have to withdraw and when it does it will withdraw through the Shiite south. And if the Shiite south is inflamed at that point and is attacking the troops as they withdraw, then you’ve got several hundred miles of hostile territory to go through. And your fuel convoys and so forth could be being hit by RPGs—that would be a nightmare. You simply couldn’t get all those Americans out by air.
MJ: You regularly read the Arab press. Do people in the Middle East consider a U.S. withdrawal imminent?
JC: No, they don’t think we’re leaving. They say we’re building those huge hardened bases, no sign that we’re going. They were openly skeptical about this vote in Congress specifying that there be no permanent bases in Iraq. They’re saying, “Well, they’re building awfully big hardened bases for that to be true,” and they think that’s just grandstanding.
MJ: How are other congressional efforts to end the war viewed in Iraq?
JC: It depends on the observers. The Sunni Arab side is heartened that the Democrats want to get out, because 92 percent of the Sunni Arabs want the U.S out. So if you read the Sunni-owned newspapers, they’re always playing up the congressional Democrats. And by the way, they get a lot of play on Al Jazeera. So they’re very well aware that the Democratic majority wants out and they think this is a good sign. But the Shiites and the Kurds are petrified that the Democrats will get America out of Iraq and will leave them behind to be massacred.
MJ: In your view, what’s a realistic time frame for withdrawal?
JC: Logistically, the problem is that when you start withdrawing troops, the ones that are still there are more vulnerable. It’s something that has to be done fairly carefully. I don’t think that most commentators who talk about this, including politicians, have a good idea of what it would mean on the ground.
MJ: What other sort of logistical problems do you foresee?
JC: There’s a lot of equipment in Iraq you wouldn’t want to leave behind for the guerrillas and the militias to get, so you’ve got to get that stuff out. And, as I said, the more you get out, the more vulnerable you are, so you could have the Iraqi guerrillas take advantage of the withdrawal to try to hit U.S. troops as they’re withdrawing. It’s not a good posture for us to be in.
MJ: Do you think we’ll turn bases and equipment over to the Iraqi security forces?
JC: It would depend on the nature of the equipment. There is a lot of U.S. equipment Iraqis would need months, if not years, of training to use. There’s no point in leaving that stuff. There is some danger when you leave an Iraqi army base in Diyala, which is mainly going to be staffed by Shiite troops, that the Sunnis may well chase them off of it and take it over. Some of the bases we leave behind may fall into enemy hands. I would expect the Sunni Arabs, if the U.S. withdrew, to have a two-pronged strategy. The two prizes for them are Kirkuk, the oil city, and Baghdad. The way that they would win in their view would be to capture Kirkuk and its oil resources in the north and then to capture and ethnically cleanse Baghdad of the Shiites.
MJ: How likely is that?
JC: That they will try to do it, 100 percent. That they will succeed, 60 percent.
MJ: In your view, what will the consequences of a potential U.S. withdrawal be in the region?
JC: There are several wars going on. One of the wars is with us. If you take us out of the mix, that war will be gone, but the other wars will still be there.
MJ: So the sectarian angle of it will still play out.
JC: I don’t personally think about it as sectarian. But, yes. The political forces that have paramilitaries will continue to fight with one another because they’re engaged in a contest for control of the country. The likelihood is that there will be a lot of violence in the wake of our withdrawal.
MJ: What about the possibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia getting involved?
JC: That’s one of the scenarios, that there would be a proxy war. It could well happen, but it’s not inevitable. It depends on how mature the Iranian and Saudi leaderships are and how much diplomacy the Americans do before they leave. Iranian and Saudi proxy wars in Iraq—that is, it turns into a regional guerrilla war—is about the worst-case scenario you could imagine for American security, including American oil security.
MJ: Describe that scenario.
JC: Back in the Iran-Iraq War it was Saddam versus Khomeini, and they didn’t hit each other’s oil facilities that much. They were aware that they would reduce each other to Fourth World countries that way, so a kind of mutual assured destruction operated that restrained the destruction of oil facilities by either side. If it’s a guerrilla war, they don’t have the same MAD constraints as states, as we’ve already seen in Iraq; the guerrillas have hit oil facilities over and over again. They become tools of guerrilla war. So if the pipeline sabotage spreads from Iraq to Iran and Saudi Arabia, you could take 15 percent of the world’s petroleum production off the market.
MJ: Should that happen, it would obviously cause huge economic problems here and around the world.
JC: The second Great Depression.
MJ: What about the humanitarian implications if the U.S. withdraws?
JC: The U.N. thinks there are 2 million internally displaced and 2 million externally displaced Iraqi refugees, although about a million of the externals were displaced before the 2003 war. I think there are best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenario would be Afghanistan in the 1990s after the Soviets withdrew. They’re demographically the same size, about 25 million. There were 5 million externally displaced in Afghanistan and I think 4 million internally.
MJ: And the best-case scenario?
JC: The best-case scenario is an analogy to Lebanon where the Lebanese fought each other for awhile on ethnic and sectarian bases and then got tired of it and the big leaders came together and made peace. They hammered out a document they all could live with and went forward. That was the Taef Accord of 1989. The best-case scenario for Iraq is a kind of early Taef Accord. It’s just the Baker plan, basically. Saudis and Iranians get together with Iraqi leaders, they forge a consensus among the leaders, the leaders are able to bring along the constituents, and they gradually start rebuilding and resolving the situation. In Lebanon one of the things that was necessary was adjusting the relative power of the Christians. An Iraq Taef Accord would probably have to readjust political power so that the Sunnis were over-represented beyond their demographic weight. The Shiites would have to give up some of their new overwhelming power.
MJ: What happens to the Iraqis who’ve been working with the United States if we leave?
JC: If the guerrillas can get a hold of them, they’ll kill them.
MJ: Do you think the U.S would try to get some of these people out?
JC: So far the Bushies haven’t done much about that sort of thing. I think the people will try to get out to Amman and Syria and there could be massacres along the way. If it looks like there are going to be massacres, then the hand of the U.S. might be forced just because it would be a public relations disaster to have done nothing. So far the Bush administration has been completely uninterested in helping those who’ve helped us.
MJ: Is there any aspect of withdrawal that no one’s really considering?
JC: Most people underestimate the Sunni Arab forces in my view. They think, “Well, they’re 20 percent of the population.” But they punch way above their weight, because they were the officer corps, and the intelligence corps, and plus they have this enormous hinterland of support in the Gulf, Jordan, and Syria. I think the Sunni Arab guerrillas are going to benefit from a U.S. withdrawal in unexpected ways and that the Shiite militias may well be overwhelmed even in their strongholds by these guys. The other thing is we’re having increasingly bad relations with the Shiite militias who had been our allies, more or less. There’s been an alliance of convenience with the U.S., but the possibility that at the time we’re withdrawing we’re fighting a two-front war—it’s very scary. There’s a sense in which we’re doing that now, but doing it as you withdraw won’t be easy.
MJ: What’s contributing to the bad relations with the Shiite militias?
JC: We’re cracking down on them. Our conception of the surge politically is to give the monopoly on legitimate force to the central government, right? So the U.S. military is taking on both the Sunni Arab guerrillas and the Shiite militias in the hope of strengthening the central government. The difficultly of this is that the central government is extremely weak and its troops don’t seem to me to have a prayer of standing up to the paramilitaries any time soon.
MJ: So you don’t think Iraqi security forces are too much of a match for these other factions.
JC: It’s another analogy to Vietnam. They really would be like the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam]. Two things happened to ARVN: one, it was overwhelmed, and the other is that we found out that a lot of it was working for the other side.
MJ: So we can’t count on their allegiances.
JC: I think that there would be some real potential for the army to split, or part of it, which came from the Shiite militia community, to go back to that and the Sunnis to join up with the Sunni guerrillas. The idea of the Iraqi government fighting effectively against sectarian militias and guerrillas just seems to me—I’m not saying it’s impossible—awfully unlikely.
MJ: What’s the best-case withdrawal plan?
JC: I’ve argued that the best hope for an orderly withdrawal would be to do whatever we can to set in place political structures that might survive our departure. The Sunni Arab provinces never had proper provincial elections, so the governments in those provinces are unrepresentative. In some cases, as with Diyala, you basically have a fairly radical Shiite government ruling a province that’s 60 percent Sunni. You know there are going to be problems with that because the government then appoints the police, and so forth. I think we should be trying to hold provincial elections before we leave so that the provincial governments and their police actually represent local, real political forces and therefore might have some chance of surviving and not just collapsing when we go.
MJ: Is a withdrawal likely in the near term?
JC: No. I think the Bush administration will be under very significant pressure from the Republican National Committee not to sink the party in ’08, so there may be some for-show withdrawals. For instance, you could take the 30,000 extra that were put in for the surge out and then claim that it is a substantial drawdown. But then you’d be back to December 2006 troop levels. I don’t expect there to be a significant troop withdrawal until this president is out of office.
MJ: And then I suppose it would depend on who’s elected after that.
JC: No. We’re going home. It doesn’t matter who’s president. Nobody’s gonna want this albatross around their necks as they go in. Whoever gets elected wants a second term, right? They’re not going to get one that way. So I’d say summer ’09; that’s when I expect a very big withdrawal. And I expect all hell to break loose in the wake of that. The warring political cells are going to attempt to take over the country when we’re not the umpires anymore.