The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has been discussing the question of the troops in Iraq since the end of the last year. The debate will continue at our conference on 19-20 May. Here, two contributions to the debate (note: the second is not a reply to the first).
In the face of the carnage brought on by the invasion, occupation and ensuing sectarian conflict, the Iraqi workers' movement must seek to build itself as an active element of social change. Its slogans must be oriented towards cohering the working class as a united, independent force for democracy and liberation.
In an Iraq in which the population overwhelmingly opposes the presence of troops and favours their withdrawal, it is a fantasy to believe that this workers’ movement — that is, the only conceivable agent of democratic change — can become strong enough to defeat either the occupation or the Islamists without posing itself sharply against the occupation.
An Iraqi labour movement that followed the logic that we have until now advocated would resign itself to simply hanging on to what remains of its organisations as violence and chaos gradually extend their reign over the country. It is not possible to “sit in the middle” of the coalition and the Islamists — there is extensive involvement of far-right militias in the US-UK-backed political structures, the Basra police are under control of Moqtada-al-Sadr and coalition forces have their very own allies among the Islamist death squads.
Moreover, the question of the presence of US/UK troops, and when they should leave, is not just a matter for “various ruling-class and reactionary factions”. For IWF members whose offices are raided, for UUI members whose demonstrations are fired upon, for oil workers struggling against privatisation orchestrated by Washington, and indeed for the entire working class, for whom the troops and various other “security forces” pose an immediate physical threat, the question of the presence of troops is a daily concern of paramount importance.
Our programme is for a democratic, secular Iraq (with the right of the Kurds to self-determination, rights for other minorities, etc) and for working-class power throughout the Middle East. The demand for troop withdrawal is essential for the workers’ movement — self-determination is not just one of many democratic rights, but a prerequisite upon which any hope of democracy rests. It is quite clear that foreign troops have no chance of imposing a democratic settlement from above, increasingly willing to sell out their initial democratic pretensions in the hope that some sort of authoritarian/soft Islamist government might bring stability and an excuse to pull out.
The troops staying for a few more months or years before withdrawal is not going to change that dynamic.
Continuing social collapse and the victory of US/UK imperialism or the far-right sectarian militias in Iraq would obviously be disastrous for the working class. But holding our hands up in despair at the situation and righteously promising ourselves that we will reassess our stance once the labour movement is stronger is a recipe for giving US/UK imperialism a free hand in the Middle East.
This is no good, since the whole question is — how can the workers’ movement become stronger? If it promulgates de facto reliance on the occupation, it will never be able to. What it needs is a politics — and slogans — defining its democratic alternative.
For us, the key focus is not abstract anti-imperialist sloganeering but practical solidarity. We are working-class anti-imperialists and our primary task is therefore to develop working class forces wherever we can. Our work through campaigns such as IUS should continue to determine the spirit of our activity on Iraq.
If we do not express our opposition to the presence of troops and our desire for their withdrawal (in both our propaganda and slogans), we risk reducing painting a picture of the Iraqi labour movement as a passive actor capable of nothing more than battening down the hatches while the conflict over the occupation takes places above its heads between various imperialist and subimperialist forces.
There is no easy sloganistic way to answer the question “should the troops withdraw immediately or stay until whenever?”, and we should not pretend otherwise. But as the only tendency on the British left serious about solidarity with Iraqi workers, our slogans still have an important job to do even if they cannot, in and of themselves, sum up our entire attitude to the situation. We should intervene in the antiwar movement and the labour movement on this issue to convince activists that the Iraqi workers’ movement can and must become the hegemonic anti-occupation force.
To do this, we need to pose ourselves more sharply against the occupation. We must patiently explain in our propaganda that we do not believe the troops have any progressive role and their continued presence daily worsens life for working-class Iraqis. This perspective — one of focusing on practical solidarity while emphasising the role of the labour movement as the active democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-sectarian agency in Iraq - is best summed up in the slogans “Solidarity with Iraqi workers against the occupation and against the sectarian militias. Troops out of Iraq.”
David Broder and Daniel Randall, April 2007
Analysis, not “anti-imperialist” posturing
“There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a ‘negative’ Social-Democratic slogan that serves only to ‘sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism’ without at the same time offering a positive answer to the question of how Social-Democracy will solve the problem when it assumes power. A ‘negative’ slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not ‘sharpen’, but dull consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation.”
Lenin, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, August-October 1916
The basic Marxist approach of the AWL is always to analyse reality and then to draw political conclusions from this assessment, including our tactics and slogans. On Iraq we’ve tried to analyse the real forces involved and to base our politics on the emerging labour movement.
But [David and Daniel] do not examine the reality of the situation in Iraq as a whole, only isolated fragments of it.
In the discussion David has dismissed the central assessment we’ve made for over three years — that if the troops left immediately, Iraq would be shattered by sectarian civil war.
What is the current situation? From the facts we can glean from its reports, there is no doubt about the strength of the Sunni and Shia forces, the growing sectarian attacks or the weakness of the Iraqi state.
The Iraq Study Group (ISG) report contained a stark description of the “resistance” forces. Of the Sunni Arab insurgency, the report says it “comprises former elements of the Saddam Hussein regime, disaffected Sunni Arab Iraqis, and common criminals. It has significant support within the Sunni Arab community. The insurgency has no single leadership but is a network of networks. It benefits from participants’ detailed knowledge of Iraq’s infrastructure, and arms and financing are supplied primarily from within Iraq.
“The insurgents have different goals, although nearly all oppose the presence of US forces in Iraq. Most wish to restore Sunni Arab rule in the country. Some aim at winning local power and control.”
On the Shia forces, the report emphasises their strength — in particular the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which “may number as many as 60,000 fighters” and “is widely believed to engage in regular violence against Sunni Arab civilians”. It highlights its rivalry with the Badr Brigade (affiliated with SCIRI) and which has “long-standing ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”.
The ISG summarised the current situation as: “Four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces are highly insecure-Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. These provinces account for about 40% of Iraq’s population of 26 million. In Baghdad, the violence is largely between Sunni and Shia. In Anbar, the violence is attributable to the Sunni insurgency and to al Qaeda, and the situation is deteriorating. In Kirkuk, the struggle is between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. In Basra and the south, the violence is largely an intra-Shia power struggle.
“The most stable parts of the country are the three provinces of the Kurdish north and parts of the Shia south. However, most of Iraq’s cities have a sectarian mix and are plagued by persistent violence.”
According to a Pentagon assessment, between August and November an average of 150 people were attacked in Iraq every day, up 22% from the previous three months. Attacks on occupation forces accounted for over two-thirds (68%) of these assaults, but almost 60% of casualties were civilians. The number of attacks on civilians went up too. More significantly, there were around 1,000 sectarian attacks and 1,000 sectarian killings every month. (Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, November 2006)
The ISG report is also clear about the weakness of the Iraqi state. It is scathing about the capability of the Iraqi armed forces, which consists of 130,000 soldiers.
The report highlights the dependence of the Iraqi army on the US military: “They lack the ability to sustain their operations, the capability to transport supplies and troops, and the capacity to provide their own indirect fire support, close-air support, technical intelligence, and medical evacuation. They will depend on the United States for logistics and support through at least 2007.”
It adds that, “significant questions remain about the ethnic composition and loyalties of some Iraqi units – specifically, whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda”. US academic Juan Cole has a similar assessment. He wrote recently: “It is not clear that Maliki could [crush the Mahdi Army] with the Shiite 5th Division if he wanted to — they might defect rather than fight fellow Shiites.
“And, they don’t have much in the way of armoured vehicles or high tech fire power.”
There are currently 180,000 Iraq police of various kinds, but the ISG report says that, “the state of the Iraqi police is substantially worse than that of the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Police Service... has neither the training nor legal authority to conduct criminal investigations, nor the firepower to take on organized crime, insurgents, or militias”.
It is pretty clear from these facts that the immediate withdrawal of US troops would lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state and a full-scale civil war between Kurdish, Sunni and Shia factions. This would be self-determination only in the sense of the self-destruction of Iraq as an entity. And it is difficult to see how the Iraqi labour movement would survive.
Of course, David and his supporters might reject this assessment. But it is necessary for them to put up some arguments and some evidence against the view that immediate withdrawal would not accelerate the process towards open civil war.
The consequences of our slogans for the Iraqi working class do matter. If troops out tomorrow would lead to the destruction of the labour movement, then to advocate it with “no qualms” is plainly irresponsible. If troops out now would improve the situation for Iraqi workers, then David and others need to prove it, e.g. to explain how the Iraqi state might survive and why the sectarian militias would not fight it out.
The reality of Iraq for the immediate period ahead is that socialists have to choose: either to prioritise the survival of the labour movement and fight for solidarity with it — or to advocate slogans like “troops out now” that would lead to the destruction of that movement, for the sake of “anti-imperialist” posturing.
Paul Hampton, December 2006