Left Behind in Iraq

By KIRK W. JOHNSON
May 18, 2010

America is leaving Iraq. We already itch to forget. The U.S. media gave more coverage to the elections in Zimbabwe than those held in March across Iraq. We award Oscars to films about Iraq but don’t particularly care to watch them. The seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion passed recently, with little notice.

Another regrettable anniversary recently passed, one from which U.S. President Barack Obama might take heed. The fall of Saigon 35 years ago marked the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of a seismic refugee crisis. An eleventh-hour request for $722 million to evacuate the thousands of South Vietnamese who had assisted the United States went unfunded by a war-weary Congress. What ensued in those early morning hours on the rooftops of Saigon, as desperate Vietnamese clamored beneath departing helicopters, would be the war’s final image seared into the American conscience. Al-Jazeera rebroadcast these scenes of abandonment throughout 2005, when I worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Baghdad and Fallujah. My Iraqi colleagues who risked their lives to help us were demoralized by the footage, and constantly worried about what would happen to them when we left.

Since my return, I have been trying to help thousands of Iraqis who fled the assassin’s bullet. They have been tortured, raped, abducted, and killed because they worked for America. My organization assists these imperiled Iraqis in navigating the straits of the winding U.S. refugee resettlement bureaucracy.  Though it is largest single list in existence of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, at several thousand names, the list is only a reflection of a much larger community.  Estimates vary, but between 50,000-70,000 Iraqis have been employed by the U.S. over the past seven years.  It is likely that thousands have already been killed as ‘traitors’ or ‘agents’ of America.  (I have a separate list documenting hundreds of assassinated interpreters who worked for just one contractor, a small but gruesome glimpse). And while I once thought that the dark years of Iraq’s civil war in 2006-08 were the bleakest for these Iraqis, I am increasingly concerned that the worst days are yet ahead.

The U.S. military is now aggressively redeploying from Iraq, and will have pulled half of its 100,000 troops out by the end of this August. Lt. General William Webster, who commands the U.S. Third Army, reflected the historic dimension of the logistics operation:“Hannibal trying to move over the Alps had a tremendous logistics burden, but it was nothing like the complexity we are dealing with now.”  Tens of thousands of troops have been reassigned to this effort, which will dismantle hundreds of bases in the coming months. The military’s logistic experts have planned it out so well, they say, that they can even track a coffee pot on its journey from Baghdad to Birmingham.

Impressive as this might be, it ignores a fundamental oversight in the Obama administration’s vaunted withdrawal strategy: There are no serious contingency plans to evacuate the thousands of Iraqis who’ve worked for the United States and live alongside U.S. troops and civilian officials as interpreters, engineers, and advisors. When the U.S. military shutters its bases, these Iraqis will be cut loose to run the resettlement gauntlet, which typically takes a year or more.

I recently came across a frightening document that outlines another group’s designs for the coming U.S. withdrawal. Published in Fallujah by the Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella organization composed of numerous insurgent and terrorist groups (including al Qaeda in Iraq), the manual sets forth their “balanced military plan” in chilling simplicity: “1) nine bullets for the traitors and one for the crusader, 2) cleansing, and 3) targeting.” They are practical: “This cannot be accomplished within one or two months, but requires continuous effort.”  Those who believe the group’s threats have been rendered hollow by the surge might reflect upon the scores of victims from its triple-suicide car bombing that targeted foreign embassies just weeks ago.  This past Monday, upon a string of attacks that killed another hundred Iraqis, the group’s ‘Minister of War’ declared: “[w]hat is happening to you nowadays is just a drizzle.”

We know where this road leads. When British forces drew down from southern Iraq just two years ago, militias conducted a systematic manhunt for their former Iraqi employees. Seventeen interpreters were publicly executed in a single massacre; their bodies were dumped throughout the streets of Basra. This predictable churn of violence against those who “collaborated” with an occupying power has been repeated through history, from the tens of thousands of Algerian harkis who were slaughtered after the 1962 French withdrawal to the British loyalists hunted by American militias after the Revolutionary War.

Depressing as this history is, it is not inevitable. The United States is not evacuating but withdrawing, and must take this opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. There are encouraging precedents to build upon. After the bloodletting in Basra, for instance, the British responded by airlifting its surviving Iraqi staffers directly to a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, England, whereupon they were offered asylum.  Indeed, each of the United States’ principal coalition partners — Britain, Denmark, and Poland — has honored its moral obligation to endangered Iraqi employees through airlifts to military bases.

Gerald Ford eventually did the right thing by airlifting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, using our military base in Guam as a staging area, but not before thousands were slain or lost to Ho Ch Minh’s “reeducation camps.” Bill Clinton used Guam again in 1996 when he ordered Operation Pacific Haven, which flew 7,000 at-risk Iraqis in safety in an effort that took weeks, not months or years.  (Serendipitously, the NSC official who oversaw the operation, Eric Schwartz, is now the head of the State Department’s bureau in charge of refugee processing.)  Since then, the “Guam Option” has been the standard for swiftly saving refugees, while also maintaining security, as processing occurs in military bases. However, this option requires the backing of the president.

“We must also keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us,” stated Obama, then a presidential candidate, lamenting that “our doors are shut” for our Iraqi employees. He argued that we held a moral obligation to the Iraqis who had risked their lives to work with the United States, and that our treatment of them would reflect on our ability to exhibit global leadership, even after the war in Iraq concluded.

“Now is a time to be bold. We must not stay the course or take the conventional path because the other course is unknown … [W]e must not allow ourselves to become ‘prisoners of uncertainty,’” he continued. But without presidential leadership, Americans will continue to be imprisoned by uncertainty, stumbling along a path littered with broken promises, bureaucratic hurdles, belated action, and the eventual abandonment of our Iraqi employees.

The United States has made positive strides in the past couple years by resettling many thousand Iraqis — some 35,000 by last count — although less than 10% are U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.  More critically, the current resettlement process will not work quickly enough when it’s needed most.  It bears recalling that the end of the American Revolution over two hundred and twenty years ago prompted the British Empire to send hundreds of ships to evacuate tens of thousands of threatened Loyalists to Canada, all in a matter of months.  That effort still dwarfs what we have done for our Iraqi allies in the 21st century.  We have today sent a lumbering bureaucracy that has no contingency plan or capacity to forestall what history nearly dictates is set to unfold in the coming year.

Obama once summoned the words of Martin Luther King when talking about the need to end the war in Iraq: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”  He must not repeat the mistakes of past presidents by waiting until the final weeks of a war to consider the fate of the ‘collaborators.’  I hope I’m wrong about what lies ahead for the Iraqis on my list, but I spent enough time in Iraq to see the disastrous consequences wrought by plans based upon wishful thinking. Obama has an opportunity to forestall tragedy by heeding these past lessons and initiating contingency planning while there are still resources and time.

We’re not at the rooftop yet, but we are fast approaching. Amidst flagging resolve and interest in Iraq, Americans should turn to a single quote to remind themselves of the desperate necessity of this mission: “This won’t be an easy mission, and we’ll have to confront both social and security obstacles, but it is a worthy struggle. … Just because the goals are difficult doesn’t mean we should abandon them.”

These aren’t my words, but the Islamic State of Iraq’s, mustering its own murderous resolve.

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Kirk W. Johnson is the founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He previously served as regional coordinator for reconstruction in Fallujah for USAID in Iraq.