How to disengage from Iraq in 18 months
With Responses From
Jan 1, 2006
26 Min read time
The war as it has evolved badly serves U.S. interests. A well-planned disengagement will serve them much better by reducing military, economic, and political costs.
The United States needs a new strategy in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The war is at best a stalemate; the large American presence now causes more trouble than it prevents. We must disengage from Iraq—and we must do it by removing most American and allied military units within 18 months. Though disengagement has risks and costs, they can be managed. The consequences would not be worse for the United States than the present situation, and capabilities for dealing with them are impressive, if properly employed.
Some people argue that the United States should disengage because the war was a mistake in the first place, or because it is morally wrong. I do not propose to pass judgment on these questions one way or the other. My case for disengagement is different: it is forward-looking and based on American national interests. The war as it has evolved (and is likely to evolve) badly serves those interests. A well-planned disengagement will serve them much better by reducing military, economic, and political costs.
Let us consider the facts of the case: The United States and its Iraqi partners are fighting a tough counterinsurgency campaign against determined, deadly, well-funded, and well-equipped foes. There are essentially two groups organizing the violent opposition: remnants of the Baath regime and Iraqi fundamentalist Islamists in league with foreign terrorists—al Qaeda affiliates or imitators. They both find their support in the larger Sunni Arab community of roughly five million people, who live mainly in central and western Iraq.
Four sources of energy are sustaining the insurgency: the anger of a group that once stood at the pinnacle of power and privilege in Iraq and now has been thrust to the bottom; tight kinship ties among this group caused by high birth rates, large families, and practices such as first-cousin marriage that keep these large families together and produce bonds of obligation that draw new family members into the insurgency as others are killed, captured, or roughed up; nationalism, both Iraqi and pan-Arab; and the recent flowering of religious fundamentalism in the Islamic world. The first two function mainly in Iraq; the last two function not only in Iraq but across the Arab world, providing a steady stream of new recruits for suicide bombing and other terrorist operations. Despite the imprisonment of nearly 12,000 suspected insurgents and the killing of thousands more in combat, insurgent strength is now reckoned to be three to four times what it was in the autumn of 2003. The insurgents clearly can tap vast reserves of manpower.
On the other side, Iraqi administrative progress is hard to find. The government, now in the hands of the Iraqis, has proved unable to manage the most basic functions and services. Press reports suggest that, between sabotage and poor maintenance, the Iraqi oil and energy infrastructure has deteriorated. The national system of food rationing (a legacy of the UN oil-for-food program), which feeds the poorest Iraqis, is ineffective and likely corrupt. Oil and food are the government provisions most vital to the medium-term welfare of the Iraqi people. Poor performance suggests that Iraqi political leaders do not understand this, or are in no hurry to manage these critical services, or cannot.
Progress in the Iraqi security forces is mixed at best. True, there are more units capable of some combat operations, with a great deal of direct American support, than there were a year ago—but a year ago there were virtually none. As of September 29, 2005, according to figures presented that day to the Senate Armed Services Committee, there were between one and three infantry battalions (a total of 2,000 men) fully capable of independent operations and perhaps another 30 battalions (20,000 men) capable of combat alongside American forces. The Iraqi defense and interior ministries have been judged to be so poorly administered that the U.S. Department of Defense has been brought in to reorganize them. Though the U.S. government claims that Iraq now has an army and police force of 200,000, evidence suggests that most are still not contributing much to the fight against the insurgents.
The American presence in Iraq—and official declarations that the U.S. military there will "hunt down" the terrorists—exacerbates these problems. First, Iraqi politicians will not apply sustained pressure to their security forces to improve themselves so long as they know that the Americans will remain to protect the state from the insurgents. Second, the Iraqi units themselves will not grow in capability and confidence so long as they are relying upon American command and control, firepower, and tactical acumen. The assertion that they would profit from more training, more professional leadership, more organization, and better equipment is true, though the American and Iraqi governments have already had two years to pour resources into these problems. But how do the insurgents do so well with no large training bases, no safe place to organize, no secure electronic command-and-control network, and only the weaponry they can obtain covertly? The answer is almost certainly motivation. The insurgents care more about ejecting the United States than Iraqi politicians and soldiers care about stopping the insurgents—in part because the Iraqis can rely on the United States to do it for them.
Third, the political leaders of Iraq's three main factions will not make difficult compromises so long as the United States remains in Iraq. Ironically, the U.S. presence probably encourages the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni Arabs each to believe that they are stronger than they are. The Kurds have become accustomed to American protection from the Shia and from Turkey, so they have felt free to demand what amounts to an independent state and control of Iraq's northern oil fields. The Shia rely on American soldiers to do the hard fighting against the Sunni Arab insurgents, which permits Shia politicians to believe that they can safely strive for a religious state and preserve their monopoly over Iraq's rich southern oil fields. Some Shia politicians also support purges of officials and soldiers—most of them Sunni Arabs—who may have had an affiliation with Saddam's regime but who were pragmatically drawn into the Iraqi administration and security services by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister. The Sunni Arabs probably believe that only the presence of U.S. troops can prevent them from re-establishing their domination of Iraq. Only U.S. troops have been able to dethrone them in the past, and many do not even believe the widely accepted estimate that they are outnumbered three to one by the Shia. They also seem to have forgotten that they preserved their domination of Iraq with chemical weapons, artillery, tanks, and aircraft—all of which are gone. They will not reconcile themselves to a diminished position in Iraq until they discover that they cannot beat the Shia and the Kurds in a fair fight.
Fourth, the American presence fuels all four social sources of insurgent support. Sunni Arabs almost surely see the United States as the agent of their fall from the top of the social order and the American presence as an obstacle to restoring their power and resources. U.S. military action, however precise by historical standards, nevertheless directly harms Iraqis and their extended families. Every killing or arrest produces more insurgents, and it is easy to see how when every victim may have two or three brothers and many more male first cousins. Finally, and obviously, the American presence stimulates both religious and nationalist opposition. It is easy to forget that, for a time, even some Shia violently opposed the American presence for these reasons.
Nationalism and religion have also brought foreign fighters to Iraq. (Good public relations has something to do with it, too: insurgents have posted films of their exploits on the Internet.) Young Arab males have been traveling to Iraq to fight the United States, many coming through Syria. Countries on Iraq's periphery seem to find it in their interests to look the other way as their more violent and politically and religiously motivated young people go to Iraq, where they can die fighting the Americans rather than conspire against the regimes of their home countries. (Perhaps half of the foreign fighters who have died in Iraq have been Saudi Arabian nationals.) Were the United States not in Iraq, not only would fewer rebels wish to come, but the incentives of neighboring governments to capture such people would rise. Today Iraq is a training ground for foreign fighters, but it is also a burial ground for many of them—thanks to the U.S. military. The Saudi and Syrian governments will have no interest in the Sunni areas of Iraq becoming an unpoliced training ground and sanctuary for rebels who wish to overthrow them once the American forces leave.
The United States is more than two years into battling the insurgency in Iraq. The insurgents are at least as strong now as they ever have been, and probably stronger. The American presence simultaneously provokes resistance and reduces the incentives for the Iraqi government to take the steps necessary to combat it. The political and military progress in Iraq to which the Bush administration regularly alludes is to be found mainly in the Kurdish and Shiite Arab communities; very little progress is being made in the Sunni Arab communities that are at the heart of the insurgency. The American presence produces at best a bloody equilibrium, the endless costs of which will be paid by American soldiers and taxpayers and Iraqi civilians.
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What are America's interests in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, and how do they lead us to a strategy of disengagement? Let us begin by considering the critical role of oil.
The interest of the United States in oil is not to control it in order to affect price or gain profit but to ensure that potential adversaries do not control it and use the profits and power to harm others. It is also to ensure that oil reliably finds its way to market. Thus, the United States acts to prevent the consolidation of oil production under the control of one or two states. This much power produces temptation to mischief in the holder and fear in its neighbors; arms races, war, and large-scale supply disruptions may follow. This is why Iraq's occupation of Kuwait was unacceptable. This is why the United States watches Iran carefully, and why it tilted toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war when it appeared that Iran might win.
Another American oil interest arises from the emergence of al Qaeda. It is clear that some oil money has found its way into terrorist coffers. The United States needs to minimize this flow, ensure that al Qaeda not control an oil state, and ensure that it not establish such deep roots within an oil state that it can extract a cut of the profits.
Beyond oil, we have learned from the alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that it is unwise to allow terrorists to get a foothold in a sympathetic state from which they can propagandize, recruit, organize, train, and plan in relative security.
What are the implications of these enduring interests for America's Iraq policy? As its ground troops depart, the United States must ensure that Iraq not be carved up by its neighbors—this process would likely produce a regional war. The United States will also wish to take steps to reduce the risk of civil war in Iraq and, should one occur, to reduce its intensity and duration and influence the results. A prolonged civil war can provide openings for outsiders—including al Qaeda—to intervene in Iraqi politics. Even a bloody victory by the Shiites over the Sunni Arabs could prove inimical to American interests, because it would surely be accompanied by human-rights violations that would not serve the West well in the war on terror. Thus, if civil war does break out in Iraq the United States will wish to end it as quickly as possible, preferably with a stalemate. The United States must also ensure that al Qaeda sympathizers not come to power and divert Iraq's oil income to destructive ends. Finally, the United States must prevent insurgents from setting up a comfortable shop in some sympathetic corner of Iraq.
Some analysts assert an additional American interest in Iraq: the creation of a functioning democracy. They argue that only democracy can direct the political energies of Iraqi young people into peaceful channels, away from terrorism. They also argue that a functioning democracy in Iraq will somehow produce democratic changes in neighboring countries—ensuring that they too will direct the political energies of their young people into peaceful pursuits.
But Iraq is a society divided into three groups with strong identities, and ethnically and religiously fissured societies are not easy to democratize. Minorities fear the tyranny of the majority, and majorities have a hard time avoiding the temptation to tyrannize. To the extent that the Bush administration's ideal political outcome in Iraq can be discerned, it is a stable, pluralist, democratic, unitary state with strong constitutional protections for minority rights that the minorities are willing to rely upon. This goal is implausible, though, because the U.S. government cannot erase Iraqi history, and it cannot undo the political power of sheer numbers. In Iraqi history, to be disarmed is to be violated. In a democracy riven by strong group loyalties, to be outnumbered is to be vulnerable. Sunnis and Kurds won't live without their own armies. Shiites won't share political and military power with Sunnis who have been cunning and ruthless enough to rule as an armed minority in the past.
Recent attempts to create democracy in fissured societies have largely failed. EU troops still sit in Bosnia ten years after NATO action forced an end to civil war there. Lebanon made little progress toward democracy under Syrian occupation, but its democracy had collapsed into a bloody civil war long before Syria showed up.
The most plausible political outcome for Iraq is therefore a very loose federal system in which the three groups largely govern themselves. The three groups may be induced to support a weak central state whose principal purpose would be to defend Iraq diplomatically from its unpredictable and meddlesome neighbors. The rock on which this defense could be built is the geopolitical interest of great powers—especially the U.S.—in ensuring that Iraq remain independent. With the assistance of these same powers—the world's principal oil consumers—the central government could also loosely referee the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.
Because strategy is about the allocation of scarce military resources toward a variety of strategic ends, the costs must be weighed against the benefits. American military power may have other roles to play in the world—in particular to deter Iran, North Korea, and even the People's Republic of China from contemplating various kinds of mischief. Meanwhile, the American presence in Iraq seems to have strengthened al Qaeda politically—hardly a victory in the global war on terror. Preventing the conquest of Iraq, preventing its domination by al Qaeda sympathizers, preventing the emergence of a major al Qaeda sanctuary in Iraq—each of these goals should be pursued in the most efficient way possible, with as little damage as possible to other American interests.
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Military disengagement is a serious business and requires a serious military and diplomatic strategy. The first step should be a campaign to remind other nations of America's enduring interests in the Persian Gulf and how those interests are manifest in Iraq. Many world powers share these interests and may prove more helpful once they see that stability in Iraq is also their problem and responsibility. More locally, Iraq's neighbors should be reminded that Iraq's territorial integrity is a fundamental American interest. It may be desirable to institutionalize this commitment in an executive agreement, a congressional resolution, or even a security treaty. These neighbors—including Syria, Iran, and Turkey—need to be quietly warned about the political, economic, or military price they might pay for actions, conventional or covert, against the Iraqi government.
Warnings may need to be accompanied by inducements. The United States should make it clear, for example, that if Syria and Iran cooperate to stabilize Iraq, the United States will temper its ambitions to overthrow them—and perhaps even help them. The Bush administration needs to rethink its interest in spreading democracy in the Middle East—especially to the states on Iraq's borders. Though these autocracies may fear that democracy is naturally contagious, they are more likely to fear the armed forces of the United States. Ideological contagion they can fight the old-fashioned way—with propaganda and rigged elections; fighting the United States directly is much tougher. Some of these states, most notably Syria and Iran, may therefore have an interest in bleeding the United States while it remains in Iraq and thus ensuring the failure of its broader project. Dropping the insistence on the spread of democracy may provide Iraq with the breathing space it needs to become a stable, loosely federated state.
American military planners should be directed to develop "over the horizon" strategies for the defense of Iraq against conventional aggression. The United States should exploit its command of the sea, space, and air to develop credible threats against conventional aggressors. Its ability to mount devastating attacks from the air, in particular, has been demonstrated several times in the Persian Gulf since the 1991 war; Iraq can benefit from American carrier aviation, strategic bombers, and bases in the region. (Iraq may wish to maintain ready air bases to aid rapid reinforcement by American land-based aircraft, as Saudi Arabia did in the 1980s.) American intelligence agencies and the U.S. Special Operations Command should maintain relationships with their official and unofficial Iraqi counterparts among the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni to help them act in their own interests despite the meddling of neighboring states.
An interval of 18 months provides ample time for the United States to help the Iraqis complete the project of training and organizing an army capable of maintaining internal security. In effect, this means training Shia-dominated security forces capable of policing and defending Baghdad and Shia-majority areas to the south. (The Kurds already have functioning police and military forces.) The prospect of taking responsibility for their own security will surely focus the attention of Iraqi politicians—especially the Shiites. Because the United States will continue to be responsible for Iraq's external defense after the withdrawal, and because the insurgents operate in small groups, it is not necessary to train an army capable of large-scale mechanized operations; infantry units fortified with small amounts of artillery and armor and capable of a limited repertoire of operations at the level of brigade, battalion, and company should prove sufficient. Such a force has not yet been created. But if Iraqis—especially the Shiites—are motivated by the knowledge that they will soon be on their own, they can achieve such a capability with a year's hard work. Iraq is now full of individuals who have had some kind of military training or experience.
The former Iraqi army was very large, with more than 40 divisions; the new one will be at most a quarter of the size. Though most officers in the old army were Sunni Arabs, it is difficult to see why sufficient numbers of Shiite officers could not be found for this reduced force. Over the next year these leaders will receive refresher courses from U.S. and NATO military officers. If need be, small contingents of U.S. Special Forces, A-detachments, can be attached to the principal Iraqi units to provide continuing advice as well as command and control to link these units with U.S. combat aviation. In wartime, Western armies have forged new units in a year or less for much more demanding tasks. Even the Iraqi army under Saddam grew at a furious pace under the pressure of the war with Iran, adding perhaps three or four new divisions per year in the 1980s, according to figures from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Necessity and threat are powerful motivators.
Proponents of an enduring American military presence in Iraq cite the risks of a civil war in the event of disengagement. This is indeed likely, and in fact a muted civil war has started already. Kurds are trying to drive Arabs from Kirkuk. Sunni terrorists are attacking Shia neighborhoods with bombs and are assassinating Shia government officials. Shia militias seem to be murdering Sunni leaders. When the United States withdraws, this low-grade war is likely to escalate.
The most likely military outcome of this civil war is a stalemate, and this is what the United States should aim for. Though there may be considerable bloodletting, it is unlikely that any group can conquer the others. Nor would it be simple to carve out separate lands for the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds; there is enough mixing of the groups, particularly in central Iraq, that some people would probably find themselves on the wrong side of political or military lines and be killed or expelled. The Sunni, with roughly 20 percent of Iraq's population, do not have the numbers, or the heavy weaponry, to conquer the other two groups. They do have the military and organizational skill to put a strong force into the field fairly quickly, a force that would surely encompass many of the current insurgents. The Shiites, with 60 percent of the population, have the numbers on their side, and the weapons, too: the only significant Iraqi stocks of heavy weapons—tanks and infantry fighting vehicles—are in the hands of the government, and most would likely fall into Shiite hands. But the Shiites will almost certainly have difficulty maintaining these weapons and employing them in offensive operations with supply lines of any length without American assistance. The Kurds also have considerable organizational and military skill, built up over years of fighting Saddam and during their extended period of autonomy in the 1990s, but they also lack the numbers and the ability to sustain offensive operations far from Kurdish territory. Though they are motivated to secure oil fields and associated installations, which will involve attacks on other groups, they have no strong motive to move deep into areas of Arab majority and incur significant casualties and costs to occupy them. The Kurds must also proceed with care lest they invite Turkish intervention. Turkey has made it clear that it will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan, and the United States should make it known that it cannot restrain Turkey if the Kurds are too adventurous.
The United States can and should act militarily and diplomatically to produce a stalemate. This strategy would essentially mirror the one used to end the Bosnia war: first building up the weaker parties, the Croatians and the Bosnians, and assisting their military efforts against the Serbs; then restraining the first two parties when they became too greedy and recommending to all three a de facto partition of the country reflecting the military stalemate that the United States (and NATO) had engineered. A military stalemate in Iraq would similarly be the stepping stone to a political settlement based on a loose federal structure. The United States should declare as its ground forces depart that stalemate is the outcome it will support. This process will not be easy to fine-tune, but U.S. air support, intelligence, and arms supplies can certainly prevent the establishment of either an al Qaeda or a Baathist state. The United States should be able to prevent the Sunni insurgents from getting control of the oil revenues of Iraq, since the oil fields are in areas dominated by Kurds and Shia. It is unlikely that the government forces or the Shiite militias will be better able to control the Anbar province than the United States has been—and without the help of the U.S. military the chances seem even more remote. With military and diplomatic pressure, the United States can restrict (though not prevent) the flow of money and arms to all three groups, limiting their autonomous power and preserving American leverage.
It has been argued that the United States has an ethical obligation to prevent Iraq from falling more deeply into civil conflict because it removed Saddam Hussein, who at least kept order. In a civil war, many fighters and civilians would be killed—perhaps even more than are dying now. The ethical questions for Americans are these: Do we owe Iraq an open-ended peace-enforcement mission that necessarily includes a bloody, costly, and seemingly counterproductive counterinsurgency campaign? Do we owe Iraq the certain erosion of the U.S. Army? Does a stalemated counterinsurgency bring Iraq closer to an internal political settlement than would a civil war for which the three Iraqi factions would bear both the political responsibility and the costs?
The major strategic problem for the United States with a stalemated civil war is that Sunni Arab areas of Iraq—in particular the vast and lawless expanses of the Anbar province—may become safe havens for al Qaeda. But a UN panel recently concluded that the American presence in Iraq has itself become a magnet for al Qaeda and functions as a school for insurgency and terror for those committed enough to enroll. Even General George Casey and General John Abizaid, the two most senior officers responsible for the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, agree that the large American presence stokes the insurgency. Once U.S. ground forces have left Iraq, the nationalist political energy will probably leak from the insurgency. Many Sunni Arabs who have tolerated the presence of foreign fighters may no longer do so. An Iraqi insurgent leader interviewed by Time magazine, Abu Qaqa al-Tamimi, observed, "One day, when the Americans have gone, we will need to fight another war, against these jihadis. They won't leave quietly." There is evidence that some of these insurgent groups already fight each other. Moreover, once a military stalemate emerges and Sunnis find themselves running their own affairs, and doing so in a part of Iraq that has no oil, they will need resources to run their state. The United States ought to be able to buy some allies among the Sunnis—it is certainly rich enough to outbid al Qaeda for local support. Shiites and Kurds may also see that they have an interest in buying Sunni Arab cooperation once they have to pay more of the costs of coercion, costs now paid by U.S. troops. The Kurds seem not to have noticed that the export pipelines for the oil of Kirkuk are easily interdicted by Sunni Arabs and by Turkey. Sharing oil wealth may come to seem a small price to pay for peace. Finally, as argued above, neighboring countries will have a much stronger interest in policing their borders than they do now. The United States can both pressure them and help them to do so.
Critics of disengagement argue that setting a date for withdrawal will produce dangerous strategic behavior on the part of the insurgents. Some predict that insurgent morale will improve and that attacks will increase. This may happen, but it may not. Every attack involves some risk to the insurgents, and one wonders why they would take greater risks the day after a withdrawal timetable is announced than the day before. In any case, some of the insurgents' political support would surely dry up as the United States disengaged and the nationalist basis of the resistance was denatured.
Others worry that the insurgents will hang back and wait for the completion of the American withdrawal to mount an all-out effort to unseat the government. This is possible, but even if it were true, who would gain the most from the prolonged period of calm? If attacks wane for a year, the Iraqi government and security forces will be able to focus on improving their capacity while the population will get accustomed to peace and its benefits and perhaps not take kindly to a resumption of violence. Moreover, the United States can plan its withdrawal to limit the power of the insurgency. With an 18-month timeline, significant troop withdrawals need not begin until the final six months. For a year, U.S. and coalition forces can continue to mount selective operations to keep pressure on the insurgents. If the insurgency does hang back, then the U.S. and the Iraqi governments would be wise to plan for the possibility of major insurgent attacks as the last ground forces depart. The Iraqi population can be politically prepared for this assault (as they were during the run-up to the January 2005 elections), and Iraqi security forces can take defensive countermeasures and prepare some surprises of their own.
Finally, some predict that precipitate withdrawal from Iraq will somehow embolden al Qaeda and increase its recruiting capability because it will be able to claim a victory against the United States. This presumes that al Qaeda is not now doing everything it can against the United States, which contradicts the widely stated views of the Bush administration. The effort in Iraq does bring converts to al Qaeda—mainly they go to Iraq to fight in what is portrayed as a war of Arab liberation. Once American forces have largely left, it will be much harder for al Qaeda to make this case. Al Qaeda will surely celebrate and claim credit for any American disengagement from Iraq, whenever it occurs; U.S. diplomats will have to debate them on this point sooner or later. But as public-relations and propaganda experts have long argued, the facts of the case will matter most: America's forces will no longer be in Iraq, but its power will still be in the Persian Gulf.
On the whole, the assertion that the announcement of a definite date for the disengagement of American ground troops would be favorable to the insurgency is simply speculation. But administration officials, who do not wish to admit their mistakes and develop a new strategy, make this argument to silence debate and discourage systematic analysis.
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The Bush administration believes that to accomplish its goals, the U.S. military must stay in Iraq, continuing to build its vaguely stated model of a Middle Eastern democracy. In this view, the current stalemate can be broken by steady and achievable improvements in the administration of Iraq, ever more representative and inclusive political institutions, and significant increases in the size and quality of Iraq's security forces—all of which have proved elusive.
But the expectation of an open-ended American presence lends internal and external political support to the insurgents and infantilizes the government and army of Iraq, producing at best a perpetual stalemate. The Bush administration's plan is to hang on and hope for a lucky break, or at least hope to make it to the end of the president's second term without an obvious catastrophe. Meanwhile the steady grind of rotations to Iraq will cause good soldiers and officers to quietly exit the Army and prospective recruits to decline entry. The American public may look up in three years and find that the option of staying the course is gone, and the conditions for departure much less controllable. Surely the steady drumbeat of American casualties combined with the gap between the political progress claimed by administration spinners and the actual state of relations between the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds will erode public support for any enduring commitment to Iraq. Then the strategy that both the Bush administration's mainstream supporters and its mainstream critics fear the most may be the only one available—precipitous withdrawal. The United States must try another strategy while it still has the political and military resources necessary to influence the pattern of disengagement and the aftermath.