Tens of thousands of Iraqis have served alongside our troops.
The terrorist group that has already abducted, tortured, and assassinated hundreds of our employees just announced plans to redouble their efforts as America leaves Iraq.
We must not leave them behind.
When the United States went to war in Iraq, now seven years ago, it did so with virtually zero capacity to interpret the Arabic language, Iraq customs and social mores. Our men and women, serving as soldiers, Marines, diplomats, and aid workers were consequently hobbled in their ability to carry out the most basic of functions. As our military rolled into villages, this linguistic and cultural gap between occupier and occupied was bridged by a unique group of Iraqis who stepped forward to help as interpreters. They became, in effect, our eyes, our ears, and our voice as we tried to make the best of an increasingly harrowing situation. Without question, their work has saved American lives.
Over the years, tens of thousands of Iraqis have played critical roles in assisting America: translators, engineers, civil society experts, advisors, to name but a few. The Department of Defense estimates that over 36,000 Iraqis were working for it in Iraq as of the second quarter of 2009.The Congressional Budget Office reported that as of August 2008, roughly 70,000 Iraqis were working for U.S. government agencies or their contractors in Iraq.
But their decision to work with the American mission also exposes them to grave risks. Threats are frequent, and hundreds, if not thousands, have been killed.
The United States is now leaving Iraq. In the coming few months, nearly half of our 100,000 troops will be withdrawn. Hundreds of bases will be dismantled. The Iraqis upon whom we have relied won’t be needed anymore, and will be ‘cut loose.’ As our military footprint shrinks, so too will our capacity to protect or save these Iraqis as they become increasingly exposed to reprisals. One contractor alone currently employs over 5,000 Iraqis as interpreters, many of whom live on bases alongside our troops.
It is a grim history, when occupying forces leave behind those ‘collaborators’ upon whom they relied. The United States owes its Iraqi allies an immense debt for their service. As the American presence in Iraq winds down, we have a basic but urgent moral obligation to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of past withdrawals, abandoning them to a bloody fate.
In this report, we analyze the lessons of the past, stretching from the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution up to withdrawal by Coalition Forces in the current war in Iraq. We also analyze the American response to the Iraqi refuge crisis thus far, with the hopes that the positive strides made in the past few years are not overshadowed by what looms on the horizon.
The Past: Mixed Progress
The United States Government has taken laudable steps towards bringing allies out of Iraq. In just a few years, the U.S. managed to move from admissions levels of roughly 200 Iraqis per year to nearly 19,000 last year. Many Department of State and Homeland Security employees have worked at great personal risk inside Iraq and throughout the region to achieve this improvement.
While this increase is laudable, the vast majority of these newly-resettled Iraqis did not work alongside the U.S. While many millions of Iraqis have fled horrific circumstances over the years, we recognize that resettlement is not a viable option for a still-massive displacement crisis. Unfortunately, the Iraqis to whom we have a special obligation have not yet been admitted in substantial numbers. Of the 34,470 Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States in the past three years, less than 10% were known U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, established through the bi-partisan 2008 Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act instructed the U.S. Government to resettled 5,000 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis per year over five years, effectively opening up 25,000 slots. Despite Congressional intent, the program has been anemic and under-subscribed, hitting roughly 30% of the goals.
Crucially, despite the progress made by these programs, neither will work quickly enough when our Iraqi employees most need our help. Iraqis currently wait an average of 18 months to make it through the system, if they’re lucky!
The Present: We Are Running Out of Time
The Status of Forces Agreement signed in November 2008 called for American soldiers to withdraw from the country in stages – a process known as “The Waterfall” – gradually ceding more and more territory to Iraqi control while bringing Americans out. The Agreement did not address any protection of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis once the withdrawal is over.
The withdrawal of an enormous American force takes time, and the Pentagon conducted intense planning. Tens of thousands of military personnel and contractors were assigned to this logistics effort, which was been compared to Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants. Our system was reportedly so advanced that the United States had the capacity to track a coffeepot back home.
However, there were no contingency plans underway to provide emergency protection to our Iraqi employees. As we shuttered hundreds of bases throughout 2010 & 2011, we laid off thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, who are now staring at a bureaucracy that is functioning more slowly than ever. This is a dangerous oversight, which sets us on a path that is well-worn with tragedy.
What is Past is Prologue: the Lessons of Withdrawal
We know full well what will happen if our efforts amount to too little, too late. The history of withdrawal is a bloody churn of assassination and reprisal, targeting those who ‘collaborated’ with the departing power. Montagnards who assisted U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam fled the country alongside hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese Boat People in 1975. Similarly, the Hmong, who were backed by the U.S. to confront the Vietcong in Laos became prime targets upon our withdrawal from Vietnam and the subsequent overthrow of the Lao kingdom. France’s withdrawal from Algeria in 1962 is scarred by the abandonment of the harkis, Algerians who had served alongside the pied-noirs. Tens of thousands were left behind to face torture and assassination in public squares.
The history of targeting collaborators even runs through our own blood, beginning in the closing months of the American Revolution, when tens of thousands of Loyalists were subjected to reprisals and persecution by Americans.
Violence against collaborators in Iraq is not imagined or new. In 1933, Iraqis massacred thousands of Assyrians who had been in league with the recently-departed British. The ensuing massacre of 3,000 at Sumayl contributed to Raphael Lemkin’s coining of the term genocide.
In the current war, there has been a steady but brutal bloodletting of Iraqis who have assisted American and Coalition forces. (see pages 19-20 and 35-36 for an analysis) While the full scale of violence will likely never be known with certainty, hundreds and likely thousands have already been slain. Many more have been abducted, tortured, raped, and forced to flee as a result of their collaboration.
The consequences of not having any plans for helping Iraqi employees upon our withdrawal have already reared their head. The British conducted little contingency planning throughout their withdrawal from Basrah in Southern Iraq. As they withdrew, militias systematically hunted British-affiliated Iraqis, warning them to “get out or die.” In a single mass killing, 17 interpreters were assassinated; their bodies were strewn throughout the streets of Basrah.
Compounding the urgency, the terrorist group which is responsible for the slaying of many U.S.-affiliated Iraqis over the years, the Islamic State of Iraq, has just issued its strategic plan, which the List Project has examined. There are clear references to steadily and patiently targeting U.S.-affiliated Iraqis in the wake of our departure. The perception, however desirable, that the ‘surge’ eliminated the possibility of terrorist groups to carry out complex and high-impact attacks ignores the numerous attacks that have been carried out since then. The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization which includes Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for many of these attacks, several of which targeted foreign embassies.
We ignore these signs at great moral peril.