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The List Project: Tragedy on the Horizon

A History of Just and Unjust Withdrawal

March 1, 2010


As the United States must not abandon the thousands of Iraqis currently risking their lives to work alongside our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers. The Obama Administration cannot wait until the final hours of the withdrawal to address this moral imperative.

America is leaving Iraq. We already itch to forget. Apart from Newsweek's recent declaration of “Victory in Iraq,” our media gave more coverage to the elections in Zimbabwe than those held last month in Iraq. We award Oscars to films about Iraq but don't particularly care to watch them. The seventh anniversary of our occupation passed with little notice.

Another regrettable anniversary is upon us, one from which President Obama might take heed. The fall of Saigon, thirty-five years ago this month, 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 U.S. (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 rebroadcast these scenes of abandonment throughout 2005, when I worked for the U.S. 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 aggressively redeploying from Iraq, and will have pulled half of our 100,000 troops out by the end of this August. 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.

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