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Plans for a Post-‘Surge’ Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: February 12, 2007

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President Bush's "surge" plan has come under heavy fire in the halls of Congress, from independent policy experts, as well as from a large majority of the American public. Some analysts depict it as a flawed last-ditch attempt (Mail & Guardian) to secure Iraq and prevent it from being dragged into a decades-long civil war on the scale of Algeria's or Lebanon's. But alternative strategies also pose problems. Backers of the Bush administration fault opponents of the plan for lacking a coherent alternative strategy.

A rapid withdrawal of forces, CFR President Richard N. Haass told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does not constitute a reliable alternative because it would “raise questions in the minds of friends and foes alike about U.S. predictability and reliability,” not to mention leave Iraq as a “humanitarian disaster” and a “sanctuary and a school for terrorists.”

Some experts say the best approach is a gradual “disengagement” of U.S. forces to begin after six months of the surge—the earliest point at which U.S. military officials have said they can assess the surge’s impact. Under a gradual drawdown, troops would be withdrawn within twelve to eighteen months, while efforts are intensified to carry out a regional stablization plan. That is the strategy outlined in After the Surge, CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon’s new Council Special Report. “The United States has accomplished all it’s likely to accomplish in Iraq,” Simon tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. “Every day we stay in Iraq, the higher the price we pay for what we’ve already achieved.”

The premise of his plan rests on two conclusions: U.S. forces have not proved capable of stabilizing Iraq and instability is a structural element of Iraqi politics that cannot be solved militarily. Of course, a pullout is fraught with risks, but Simon says talk of a “regional conflagration” is “not the likeliest consequence of civil war,” if Middle Eastern history is any indication (Israel and Syria’s involvement in Lebanon is an exception). Nor are the preconditions (i.e. heavy weaponry) present for Bosnia-like genocidal violence. The priority, Simon says, “should be to limit the effects of the civil war and, at worst, confine it to Iraq itself.”

This so-called “containment” strategy echoes the plan put forth by Kenneth M. Pollack and Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution. Their plan paints a grim prognosis. Based on their analyses of some dozen recent civil wars, Pollack and Byman call for a redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraqi population centers to the periphery to stem the flow of refugees, keep Iraq’s neighbors at bay, and essentially let the civil conflict “burn itself out.” Like Simon, Pollack admits the plan is risky. “To tell you the truth, it’s something many countries have tried over the course of history and few have succeeded,” he tells CFR.org’s Gwertzman.

The emergence of alternative strategies on Iraq comes against the backdrop of two major developments: First, an escalation in carnage that a recently released National Intelligence Estimate describes as a “sea change in the character of the violence.” The February 4 suicide attack in Baghdad was the single deadliest (CSMonitor) since the war began. An earlier firefight involving an Islamic cult in Najaf left hundreds dead and further exposed the weakness of the Iraqi forces. Second, the domestic political battle in Congress over Iraq has also escalated in recent weeks. Seven Senate Republicans who earlier this week blocked debate on a resolution opposing President Bush's troop surge have changed course and now vow to ensure a full and open debate on the issue (WashPost). But other legislative battles loom and the pressure for alternatives in Iraq could build.

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