Don't Panic! April 29 2004

Your war questions answered

What's the status of the U.S.-led military and security coalition in Iraq?

Goodbye, Coalition of the Willing. Hello, Coalition of the Wilting.

That pretty much explains it, but unless I write another 650 or so words to elaborate, I might get fired.

As you might have heard, Spain's nuevo ministro primo, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has initiated the removal of Spain's 1,300 soldiers from Iraq sooner than expected. In fact, most of the Spanish soldiers may have returned to their casas by the time this column hits los newsstands.

What you might not have heard, and what just might prompt you to eschew paella in favor of Liberty Pilaf, is that Spanish forces haven't bothered coordinating their withdrawal with the rest of the coalition. According to American officials, the result has been security gaps in Spain's region of responsibility in Iraq (the beautiful south-central area) that remaining forces are now rushing to fill.

It's not as if Spain's military expertise in Iraq is strategically crucial. Except for bullfighting and flamenco guitar playing, there's nothing that the Spanish forces can do that American, British or Polish forces can't do just as well. Leaving so quickly, however, has created security vacuums that could lead to violence in which other forces may have to step.

Bad Spain! Bad, bad, bad!

And the Dominican Republic is following Spain's lead, removing about 300 soldiers from Iraq. Actually, it's good news for the country's competitors in the Coalition of the Willing Intramural Baseball League, but bad news for everyone else. Along with 368 Honduran soldiers, the Dominicans were in Iraq under Spanish command. With no one left to boss them around in their own language, soldiers from those two nations are heading home. The Honduran withdrawal from Iraq is particularly vexing to American political leaders because no one can think of anyone or anything from Honduras to make fun of or boycott.

They haven't bought their soldiers tickets yet, but don't be surprised if Thailand ditches the coalition soon, too. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra recently said that he'll call home his nation's 440-person force from Iraq — and I'm dead serious — if they are attacked. His words: "Once our soldiers are attacked, or being harmed, we will take them back. We are there to help. But if our soldiers are getting killed, why should we continue to stay?" Hey America, we got your back, except not really. Just for that, Mr. Shinawatra, I'm laying off the Thai Stick and sticking with Humboldt Red for the foreseeable future.

Kazakhstan's attitude toward military operations in Iraq is different from Thailand's, but no more helpful. Rather than promising to recall his nation's 27-man force if someone fires at them, Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev has taken a more proactive approach. As he explained to the press recently, "We have forbidden our military men to participate in the armed conflicts." Thank you, Kazakhstan. Sadly, the Kazakh military philosophy is catching on. According to British reports, fear of combat has prompted 500 Japanese soldiers to cease operations outside their encampment.

For a day or two, it looked as if Poland was considering withdrawing its large contingent of soldiers from Iraq, a move that would have devastated the coalition's successful light-bulb replacement campaign. But then Poland turned around and pledged to keep them there until at least January 2005.

There is one bit of good news. South Korea has just promised to send 3,600 soldiers from its honest-to-goodness well-equipped and well-trained military to Iraq. That more than offsets the Spanish, Dominican and Honduran losses. South Korea feels more than a little obligated to help us out since we protect them from North Korea. If the violence in Iraq continues to escalate, however, expect to see more Spains than South Koreas. A lot of the countries that bought into joining the coalition only did so because they were sold the same lies that we were — that the invasion and occupation would be a cakewalk.

Now that it's undeniably obvious that the White House and Pentagon badly miscalculated, expect more nations and international leaders to look after their own interests by cutting and running from a war that their citizens want no part of.


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