Fourteen policy analysts from reputable think tanks across Europe were given the scenario of a swift US troop withdrawal by summer 2009 and asked about the consequences for Europe. After all, according to a BBC World Service poll in summer 2007, 61 percent of Americans think US forces should get out of Iraq within a year, including 24 percent who favor immediate withdrawal and 37 percent who prefer a one year timetable.
Of course, the threats to Europe from Iraq depend on a number of factors, such as the degree of national reconciliation reached by 2009 and the involvement of the international community.
Increased Terrorism Threat
Almost all of the experts agree that the risk of terrorism in Europe would increase significantly upon a premature US withdrawal from Iraq. Dr. Jean Y. Haine (SIPRI), claims that the already high terrorist threat level—“nearly every week across Europe, a [terrorist] attack is foiled” —is increasing because of the “flow back effect of Iraq.” Young Muslims, who left Europe to join the insurgency, may pose a threat after they return. Pierre Drai of the Centre d’Etudes Transatlantiques) fears “would-be jihadist[s] coming back to France to promote their view and attempt terror attacks.”
But Truls-Hallberg Tonnessen, an expert in global jihadism at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), is less concerned about an exodus of Iraq war veterans into Europe, expecting that the “jihadists fighting in Iraq will continue their fight against a regime they perceive as a US puppet regime in the north and around Baghdad.” Most of the foreigners fighting in Iraq come from neighboring Arab countries and are likely to return to them. Tonnessen sees a comparatively small number of European Muslims fighting in Iraq, and notes that attacks have already been staged in Jordan and Lebanon: “The main issue driving al-Qaida inspired jihadists is what they perceive as occupation of Muslim land. Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan seem to be more likely areas” for subsequent conflict.
Other respondents such as Iva Venkova (Institute Europeen de Hautes Etudes Internationales) worry about spillover from Iraq to Afghanistan. Mark Burgess of WSI Brussels, for example, perceives further challenges for those Europeans engaged in an already difficult struggle there.
Dr. Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs is especially concerned about any kind of partitioning in Iraq: “This kind of ‘imperialist divide and rule’ scenario would galvanize anti-Western extremist groups across the globe.” Visser prefers a “handover to [the] UN with EU participation” after the US withdrawal, because this would lead to “improved prospects for cooperation between Europe and the Islamic world.”
Widespread Regional Instability
Respondents are concerned that Iraq could end up a failed state after US withdrawal. The growing number of Iraqi refugees could also destabilize countries in Europe’s immediate neighborhood. Most policy analysts envision worst-case scenarios similar to that of German Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Jan Techau, who sees the Kurds declaring independence and Iran gaining significant influence over large parts of Iraq, leading to “the implosion of the finely tuned regional power balance” and “increasing the risk of military conflict on Europe’s doorstep.”
Although this made many respondents pessimistic, some expect the region to eventually settle down. Dr. Volker Perthes (SWP) writes that even if John Edwards became president and implemented his campaign promise of immediate withdrawal, Iraqi Kurdistan would still be relatively safe in four years’ time, due to a future bilateral agreement with Turkey against the wishes of the Iraqi ministry of defense. Other regions of Iraq would “have been effectively cantonised into small fiefdoms of rival militias” or controlled by Iranian, Saudi or Syrian troops and intelligence operatives.
Etienne de Durand (IFRI) is the only expert who claims that such a regional conflagration could benefit the West: “low-level protracted warfare between the Saudis (also Al Qaida) and the Iranians through local proxies would tie them and wear them down, perhaps to the point where most of their respective energies would be focused on Iraq.”
Europe Loses An Active Partner
Haine (SIPRI) asserts that the most important yet least debated risk for Europe is that US failure in Iraq will increase the already potent isolationist sentiment in the US: “With a weakened United States, geopolitical vacations for Europe should be over. They are alas not.” Venkova is concerned that if the US international reputation were further undermined by an arbitrary and early withdrawal, “Europe would be faced with the prospect of reduced US capacity to deal with any common challenges lying ahead.” And Techau argues that Europe would lose because of “the moral, political, and military weakening of America as the sole guarantor of global stability, thus making the world a more dangerous place; the sustained loss of credibility of not only American but Western concepts of order, democratization and development.”
This is the third of three installments analyzing the results of interviews conducted with European policy analysts and our community. The second installment, Europe Should Help Iraq, But Not Follow US Lead, was published on September 28, 2007. The first installment, Europeans Want America to Stay in Iraq, was published on September 25, 2007.