Commentary Magazine


Saving American Employees in Iraq

U.S. forces are rapidly withdrawing from Iraq; they are supposed to be down to 50,000 by the end of August and to zero by the end of 2011. What does that mean for the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have worked for U.S. military and civilian representatives? That is unclear, but the portents are ominous.

Iraq is getting more peaceful, but extremist groups have openly talked about “nine bullets for the traitors.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq is, no doubt, much weakened by a recent wave of raids by Iraqi and U.S. forces that have taken out much of its top leadership, but it could well regenerate itself to carry out such threats or other groups could rise up to target these American employees. Many have already died in such terrorist attacks since 2003, and those who remain an American employee are scared about what happens once American troops leave. This article in an English-language Abu Dhabi paper quotes one “‘terp,” who works for American troops:

“They’re going to leave us behind, I can see that now,” he said. “I never thought this day would come and even when [president] Obama said they’d pull-out, I believed all the promises from the soldiers that they’d take us with them, that we were their brothers, their buddies, their guys.

“But now they’re going and it’s obvious they’re not going to take us. We’ll be left here, we’ll be hung out to dry, we’ll be [expletive].”

The question is whether America will accept a moral responsibility to help out those who have helped us. Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker in Iraq who has started an NGO called the List Project to resettle Iraqi allies, urges what he calls the Guam option:

In the 1970s, then-President Gerald Ford eventually did the right thing by airlifting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, using the U.S. military base in Guam as a staging area, but not before thousands were slain or lost to Ho Chi Minh’s “re-education camps.” Bill Clinton used Guam again in 1996 when he ordered Operation Pacific Haven, which flew 7,000 at-risk Iraqis to safety in an effort that took weeks, not months or years. Since then, the “Guam option” has been the standard for swiftly saving refugees, while also maintaining security, as processing occurs in military bases.

One may well object that the Vietnam analogy doesn’t apply, because we haven’t lost in Iraq. That’s true. And if some U.S. troops remain in Iraq after 2011 — as I hope will occur — the Guam option may not be necessary, because U.S. forces can play an important peacekeeping role to ensure that Iraq remains on a stable, democratic path. But if we do execute a full pullout by the end of next year, then all bets are off, and the Guam option should be given serious consideration as a way to save our brave allies, whose safety cannot otherwise be assured.