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What Should Be The U.S. Exit Strategy From Iraq?

Authors: Major General William L. Nash, U.S. Army (Ret.) Daniel Goure, senior defense analyst and vice president, Lexington Institute Andrew Krepinevich, executive director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer(s): Lionel Beehner
November 28, 2005

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It is the question of the moment in Washington: How and when should the United States begin drawing down its forces in Iraq and turning over more responsibility for that nation’s security to local forces? Regardless of how they felt at the start of the war, many in Congress now want a timeline set, something the Bush administration is resisting, citing the need to base decisions on military considerations.

Yet military experts seem divided, too. On one hand, argues Council Fellow William Nash, if U.S. forces stay put until Iraq is perfectly stable, they may never leave. On the other hand, leaving prematurely could “turn a bad situation into a regional nightmare,” argues the Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure. Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments reiterates the Pentagon’s contention that this will be a “long, hard slog,” while Council Senior Fellow Max Boot says timetables for troop withdrawal should be avoided but adds that victory in Iraq is still obtainable, “ even if the insurgency isn't finished, as long as the Iraqis are doing the bulk of the fighting.” Cfr.org's Lionel Beehner asked all these scholars the following question: What is the United States ’ best strategy for exiting Iraq.

Major General William L. Nash, U.S. Army (Ret.)

We’re beyond good ideas and just trying to figure out the least bad option. This is not a situation of figuring out the perfect solution. So I am one who believes strongly that our presence is now a detriment to our achieving our goals. As a consequence, I would say we need to be looking for excuses to withdraw, not for reasons to stay. That’s not cutting and running, that’s saying this is what we came for: The country has had several elections; it has a constitution, etc. We’ll stay engaged, but we’re not going to run this place. If we’re trying to get it perfect, we’re going to be there a long, long time and we’ll never, by definition, make it perfect because our presence will prevent it from being perfect. Having spent a couple years training their forces, I also believe the Iraqi security forces are far more capable than we give them credit for, especially if we don’t busy ourselves by trying to make them look like mirror images of us. Sometimes we get excited by form over function.

[Our withdrawal should] be graduated, but it’s saying we recognize that it’s your country, and we’re going to leave like we said we would and there’s no great quarrel over our intent or what we’re really going to do. Just by doing what we claimed we were going to do will build us great credibility [among Iraqis]. Going into Iraq was a bad idea, but now that we’re there we need to figure out some way to leave and sooner is better than later. I do think the training mission will need to continue, but it won’t be as robust as it is now. I think there are some combat missions we probably need to perform in the border areas and keep sufficient force in the [Gulf] region so that we can ensure the survival of this government. This is not a get-on-our-helicopter-and-leave strategy that says “you’re on your own.”

Daniel Goure, senior defense analyst and vice president, Lexington Institute

It is a fundamental mistake talking about exit strategies rather than talking about military objectives and winning the war. Winning the war does not mean you have to march into an enemy capital and overthrow the country. In that context, it seems the goals in Iraq, by which then we could withdraw our forces, are fairly straightforward. First, [there is] the creation of a representative government in Baghdad that has basically the acceptance of a majority of the people and can do the basic functions of a sovereign state. Second, you have to have security services capable of meeting those objectives like border security, crime control, counterinsurgency, and defense of the state. Third, and we’re fairly close to being there, the insurgency needs to be sufficiently crippled. An Iraq-led counterinsurgency in a year or two should be able to deal with the insurgency’s remnants. If you look at Iraq, fourteen out of eighteen provinces have less than one attack per day; the majority of the attacks are in the Baghdad area and in Sunni-dominated provinces. So it’s not a nationwide insurgency, it’s a local and regional insurgency.

In a sense, we’re probably two years behind where we ought to be, but we’re moving in the right direction in terms of Iraqi military training, with the proviso: You can’t speed it up. In fact, you might argue to slow it down. We tried to rush a police force into place and threw people into uniforms without giving them equipment or training, and they failed. You have to train each private, platoon, brigade, and battalion—you also have to train the officers and coordinate them with other units, as well as teaching air support, how to plan logistics without running out of bullets, etc. And all these things take time. In terms of an exit strategy, faster is exactly the wrong thing.

This is going to end in one of two ways: Either we manage to move toward stability, there is a progressive reduction in conflict, and we bring the Sunnis into the process, or it will end with the Shiite-run government rolling over the Sunnis and slaughtering them. We will have genocide if we’re not careful. Our leaving incorrectly will turn a bad situation into a regional nightmare. If there’s a slaughter or genocide out of this civil war, that’s something that will bring in the Syrians, the Jordanians, and the Iranians.

Also, we’re not the only ones causing problems, because most pipe bombs are going after locals, mosques, police, etc. Why would that stop if we get out? [Recent comments made by Democrats in Congress calling for a pullout] assume as soon as we leave everything will return to normalcy and people will simply put down their guns because we are the catalyst. But the majority of the casualties have not been againstU.S.forces. It’s been Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

Our idea is to put powers in the hands of those who are stable and not genocidal in attitude and able to perceive a government in which there are minority rights and freedom of expression. So the question is: How do you wean them from their dependence?They don’t know how to do large operations. The police don’t have a good manual on democratic procedures, on how not to beat confessions out of people. This is the old routine of teaching someone to fish versus giving them the fish. We want to move where they’re doing all the fishing on their own. So they’ll be dependent, in the sense of needing us to support their military operations, for another three to five years, assuming there’s still an insurgency going on then.

Andrew Krepinevich, executive director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

There’s a difference between a withdrawal strategy and a victory strategy. First, the Bush administration needs to talk about troop reduction but also to achieve our objectives in Iraq. Second, it’d be interesting to have them address an issue that I think is begging to be addressed: It seems to be those advocating a fairly rapid withdrawal underestimate the cost of such a withdrawal, whereas at the same time, those for staying the course underestimate the cost of achieving our goals. By costs, I mean in terms of resources—both human and material, as well as political—in terms of frayed relations with our allies, and the economic costs if Iraq were to descend into civil war, or if radical Islamists were to take over, the effect that would have on energy prices.

To sum it up, what started out a war of choice is arguably now a war of necessity. The costs of withdrawal are likely to be quite high, but the costs of persevering and achieving our objectives of a democratic Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors is also quite high. We have not “fessed up” to ourselves just how difficult this situation is, that it will require, as [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld said, a “long, hard slog.” The administration hasn’t done the things that would indicate there is this high level of seriousness—there’s no single person in charge in Baghdad, or in Washington, except the president. There’s no war cabinet; we rotate our best generals in and out ofIraq; if we find someone exceptional, we don’t keep him there; it seems the Pentagon’s bureaucratic personnel system trumps battle efficiency. Also, it’s hard to feel this is a war waged for high stakes when the American people are not being asked to make any level of sacrifice. We haven’t seen tax increases to cover the war’s costs or even a war-bond drive.

I think there is need for some level of troop reduction to show Iraqis we will not indefinitely occupy their country; to show the American people the Iraqi security forces are capable of taking on some responsibility, at least marginally; and third, and perhaps most important, given the growing difficulties the U.S. Army is experiencing recruiting soldiers and retaining soldiers, some stress needs to be taken off the Army as an institution before the recruiting pool dries up even further and those on active duty begin voting with their feet, by just not reenlisting.

The question then becomes: How do you do that while making progress toward your goal? First, put one competent person in charge of the overall effort in Iraq, including intelligence-gathering, military, diplomatic, and reconstruction efforts—and that has to be the ambassador. Second, when you find a good commander, keep him there [in Iraq]. Third, emphasize population security rather than sweep operations. I clearly believe this is a war on intelligence; that is, if we win the intelligence war, we win the war. A critical source of intelligence, particularly finding who the insurgents are, is the Iraqi people. The best way to get that information from them is to provide them with security. The U.S. military has been modifying [their sweep operations] somewhat by leaving Iraqi battalions behind [in secured areas], but it’s not clear how competent these Iraqis are. [I recommend leaving] not just an Iraqi battalion behind but one with a higher level of embedded U.S. soldiers with it. Another important point: The local police are the key to winning this war; the police, which are the enduring face to the Iraqi population, are critical: Can we train good police so that they’re competent and incorruptible? It’s incredibly difficult given Iraq’s history.

Overall, it’s going to require a substantial long-term military presence in Iraq. Democracy is about more than elections; it’s about a country where people see their security in terms of institutions, not warring factions. It takes a long time to build up these institutions. It’s about an Iraqi military that sees its primary loyalty to the government inBaghdadand not to their own local ethnic group or faction. That will take an extraordinarily long time. Seventy-two years after we ratified our own constitution, Robert E. Lee said he felt more loyalty to his own state than to his country. And in Iraq, there is no George Washington or group of founding fathers who have a fairly homogenous background and who fought together on the same side. There are still hot-button issues within Iraq’s constitution about power-sharing, the sharing of resources—oil is two-thirds of the country’s economy. There’s a lot of uncertainty over who’s going to control existing versus new oil fields. Again, the administration has been reluctant to say what Rumsfeld has said privately: that it’s going to be a long, hard, and costly war, but we don’t have a choice and have to suck it up. It’s very difficult to do that when your public standing in terms of opinion polls is where the president’s is right now.

Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

I would avoid publicly speculating about timelines for withdrawal. That only feeds the frenzy and puts the White House into a bidding war with Democrats over who can withdraw troops faster. Any pullouts should be based on objective conditions on the ground, not on political conditions back in the United States . There is a real danger of pulling out troops too soon. Iraqi forces are getting better, as Bush says, but they still need a lot of support. Moreover, improvements in the overall security situation will come with more total security forces, whereas if U.S. forces pull out as Iraqi forces stand up, the overall number of forces on the ground will not change and it will be harder to extend the zone of security. The administration should put its focus on convincing the American public that our troops are doing something worthwhile in Iraq and that they're winning. Talking about pullouts undermines both messages.

The point isn't to exit; it's to win. I doubt that we'll be able to pull all of our forces out of Iraq in the foreseeable future. But we'll certainly be able to reduce the number over time. The point isn't to stamp out the insurgency; that's not an achievable short-term objective. The point is to give the Iraqis enough breathing space to establish a stable democratic government. We need to be careful about how we define victory. We can still win even if the insurgency isn't finished, as long as the Iraqis are doing the bulk of the fighting.

An Iraq without U.S. troops on its soil right now would be an unimaginable catastrophe. The likely result would be an all-out civil war in which hundreds of thousands could die. It might also lead to the partition of Iraq with the western part of the country turning into a jihadi state along the lines of Taliban Afghanistan . Iraqis are aware of these scenarios, which is why most say they want U.S. troops to leave—but not yet.

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