Iraq : Tragedy on the Horizon

Why the US must help its civilian allies find a safe haven outside of Iraq before it is too late

Kirk W. Johnson
Traumatische Erfahrung. Hubert van Es fotografierte 1975, wie die Amerikaner die letzten vietnamesischen Mitarbeiter der USA nach dem Fall von Saigon ausflogen. Foto: dpa
Traumatische Erfahrung. Hubert van Es fotografierte 1975, wie die Amerikaner die letzten vietnamesischen Mitarbeiter der USA nach...Foto: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Fall of Saigon, thirty-five years ago this summer, marked the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of a seismic refugee crisis. In the final weeks of the war, President Ford belatedly convened dozens of meetings to explore options for saving thousands of South Vietnamese who had assisted the US (in a declassified National Security Council transcript, Kissinger estimated an „irreducible list“ of 174,000 individuals). An eleventh hour request for $722 million to evacuate our allies reflected little planning and went unfunded by a war-weary Congress. What ensued in those early morning hours on the rooftops of Saigon would sear the American conscience with the war's final image of desperate Vietnamese clamoring beneath disappearing helicopters.

Al-Jazeera rebroadcasted these scenes of abandonment throughout 2005, when I worked for the US Agency for International Development in Baghdad and Fallujah on the reconstruction. My Iraqi colleagues who risked their lives to help us were demoralized by the footage, and 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 maintains the largest list in existence of these imperiled Iraqis and assists them in navigating the straits of our winding refugee resettlement bureaucracy. And while I once thought that the dark years of Iraq's civil war in 2006-08 were the bleakest for those on my list, I am increasingly concerned that the worst days are yet ahead.

We are now in the midst of an aggressive redeployment from Iraq, having just pulled the last combat brigades out with an eye towards full withdrawal by December 2011. Our generals, brash with confidence, compare their logistics efforts to Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants. Tens of thousands of troops have been reassigned to this effort, which will dismantle hundreds of bases in the coming months. We have planned it out so well, they say, that we can even track a coffeepot on its journey from Baghdad back to Birmingham.

Impressive as this is, it masks a fundamental and dangerous oversight in our vaunted withdrawal strategy: as with Vietnam, there are no serious or comprehensive contingency plans to evacuate the thousands of Iraqis who currently work for us and live alongside us as interpreters, engineers, and advisors. When we shutter our bases, these Iraqis will be cut loose to run the resettlement gauntlet which typically takes a year or more.

I came across a frightening document which outlines another group's designs for the coming year of withdrawal. Pub- lished 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 that the ISI, which has assassinated many of our Iraqi employees over the years, has been rendered irrelevant by the surge might reflect upon the hundreds of victims from the group's suicide bombings which have proceeded with increasing frequency amidst the uncertainty caused by the lack of a government five months after this year's elections.

We know where this road heads. When the British drew down from southern Iraq just two years ago, militias conducted a systematic manhunt for Iraqi employees of the UK. In a single incident, 17 inter- preters were publicly executed, and reports surfaced of others dragged to their deaths behind cars through the streets of Basrah. To imagine this as an isolated experience ignores the history of withdrawal, a bloody and predictable churn of violence upon those who 'collaborated' with the departing power. Tens of thousands of Algerian harkis were slaughtered upon France's withdrawal in 1962. Thousands of loyal Assyrians were massacred in nor- thern Iraq upon British withdrawal in 1932. On our own soil, Americans formed militias and hunted Loyalists in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Depressing as this history is, it is not inevitable. Iraq is not Vietnam. We are not evacuating, but withdrawing. That distinction, however, presents an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. We have many positive precedents from which to work. After the bloodletting in Basrah, the British responded by airlifting remaining Iraqi staffers directly to a RAF base in Oxfordshire. Indeed, each of our principal Coalition partners - the UK, Poland, and Denmark - have honored their moral obligation to endangered Iraqi employees through airlifts to military bases.

President Ford eventually did the right thing in airlifting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, but not before thousands were slain or lost to the reeducation camps. President Clinton flew 7,000 at-risk Iraqis in 1996 to our base in Guam, where processing took weeks, not years. The „Guam Option“ has in fact been the standard in swiftly saving refugees while maintaining security as processing occurs in military bases, but this option requires the backing of the President.

As a candidate, President Obama lamented the languorous pace of processing for our Iraqi employees, declaring that "Now is a time to be bold. We must not stay the course or take the conven- tional path because the other course is unknown … we must not allow ourselves to become 'prisoners of uncertainty.'" Of course, it's easy to be imprisoned by uncertainty if we forget or ignore what we have already been capable of as a nation when our Commander-in-Chief embraces a moral imperative.

Without presidential leadership, how- ever, America will stumble along the conventional path Obama criticizes, a path littered with broken promises, bureaucratic hurdles, belated action, and abandonment.

America has made positive strides in the past couple years by resettling many thousand Iraqis, but the process we've established will not work quickly enough when it's needed most. I hope I am wrong about what lies ahead for the Iraqis on my list, but I have spent enough time in Iraq to see the disastrous consequences wrought by plans based upon wishful thinking. President Obama has an opportunity to forestall tragedy by heeding these past lessons and initiating contingency planning while there are still resources and time.

"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 their murderous resolve in the closing pages of their strategy. We're not at the rooftop yet, but we are fast approaching.

Kirk W. Johnson is Executive Director of The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.

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