In response to the letter, Reader Phil asked if there's anything to be done, other than hand-wringing. I think the answer is to draw down the troop level and let the bloodbath ensue. Or rather, to declare victory and go home. We're not making the situation better there, so we may as well leave rather that drop more dollars and blood in the desert.
All those hawks who think that the solution is to double down on the number of troops should go out and look at the history of insurgencies in the postcolonial period. Not once in the last forty years has an army from the Global North put down an insurgency in the Global South, so give up the Niall-Ferguson fantasies of running a benign empire, and accept the limits of hard power.
Incidentally, this is what Juan Cole wrote back to me when I suggested as much to him:
Game it out and without question it royally sucks; but that doesn't mean that the alternative (i.e. staying) games out any better.
It isn't just a matter of emboldening the terrorists if we leave too soon.
It is December 31, 2006. The last US soldier has left Iraq, seen off by Prime Minister Jaafari.
You game out what happens in Iraq, Iranian Khuzistan and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia over the subsequent year.
At this point, however, I expect that it will probably take ten years before the U.S. gets out, and I say that based on speculating on the domestic politics of withdrawal under fire. The next President, if a Republican, will inherit the foreign policy team that made these choices to begin with and will therefore stay the course in the vain hope of salvaging their historical place. If a Democrat, he or she will be too scared of appearing weak to pull out. That means that it will be till at least 2012 before a withdrawal is seriously contemplatable, and depending on electoral outcomes that year, we may well be looking at 2016 before we get an administration with enough distance from the original choice of going to war to be willing to look dispassionately at the situation.