Peace Sig:How to get out of Iraq

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Also see Aug. 1, 2007  Obama's Plan For Iraq

Thursday, Jul. 19, 2007

How to Leave Iraq


There are two big schools of thought about what the U.S. should do next in Iraq, and both schools are almost certainly wrong.


The first, represented by many congressional Democrats, argues that it is past the time for America to leave. The best thing that could happen now is for the U.S. to pull out as quickly as possible, force the Iraqis to take control of their destinies and compel the oil-rich gulf states in the neighborhood to get off the sidelines. In this view, leaving Iraq would deny al-Qaeda its best recruiting tool, a large U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Along the way, the U.S. could save the $10 billion a month that it is spending on the war and rescue the U.S. Army and Marine Corps before they both collapse.

To the other school, it's just as clear that the only possible course is to continue to fight for as long as it takes. Espoused by Bush Administration officials, the contention of this group is that by withdrawing from Iraq, we'd unleash a bloodbath, hand al-Qaeda and Iran huge victories, destabilize the Persian Gulf and empower terrorists everywhere to attack our allies and our homeland. In the face of those dangers, say the White House and its backers, America has no choice but to remain in Iraq until a democracy emerges from the chaos of the Middle East — a project they openly acknowledge is the work of a generation.


Four years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, neither approach makes much sense. Political support for the war has cratered; Americans want the troops brought home. But they also know that it isn't likely to happen soon and that no matter when America leaves, Iraq could well become a more chaotic, violent place. They have learned that in the Middle East the U.S. has very little, if any, control over what might occur. And no matter what your views of the war or its genesis, things are likely to turn out different from what you expect.


As the White House and Congress bicker over timetables and benchmarks, intelligence estimates and report cards, the real question is the one neither camp is facing very well: How do we leave in a way that maximizes the good that we can still achieve and minimizes the damage that will inevitably occur? The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad. Even under the rosiest scenarios, the U.S. will suffer a humbling blow to its prestige as it leaves Iraq and the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war intensifies. But with the debacle would come some dividends. Done judiciously, a pullback from the war would start restoring America's ability to advance its interests and deter aggression beyond Iraq.


What's needed is not the sloganeering of certain politicians but a clear-eyed, multifaceted policy. That would involve making plain to the Iraqi government our intention to pull back, followed by an orderly withdrawal of about half the 160,000 troops currently in Iraq by the middle of 2008. A force of 50,000 to 100,000 troops would dig in for a longer stay to protect America's most vital interests: denying al- Qaeda a safe haven and preventing an almost inevitable civil war from spilling into neighboring countries. At the same time, the reduction in the U.S.'s military footprint in the region should be accompanied by a sustained surge in American diplomacy.


Slowly backing out of Iraq is hardly inspiring and won't be likely to satisfy either the President or his opponents. It may look just as messy as what the U.S. is doing now. But a responsible retreat would limit U.S. casualties and move America out of a debilitating chapter that has now played out politically at home, if not militarily on the ground. In a world of bad options, a phased withdrawal is the least bad one out there.



On July 17, in yet another example of how unhelpful the political conversation has become, workers laid out cots and pillows in a marble cloakroom on Capitol Hill as the Senate prepared for an all-night debate on another in a line of doomed-to-fail resolutions. Sponsored by Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed, the measure called on the Administration to begin withdrawing the bulk of U.S. troops within 120 days and leave an unstated number behind to go after terrorists and protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Many Republicans might support such a plan in private if they did not feel that the Democrats were keeping them up all night to score points at the President's expense. But even if Congress approved Levin-Reed, military logistics experts say it would take far longer than 120 days to redeploy even half of U.S. forces.


The reality is that it's difficult to get out fast. It took the Soviets nine months to pull 120,000 troops out of Afghanistan. They were simply going next door, and they still lost more than 500 men on the way out. Pulling out 10 combat brigades — roughly 30,000 troops, along with their gear and support personnel — would take at least 10 months, Pentagon officials say. And that's only part of the picture. There are civilians who would probably want to head for the exit when GIs started packing. They include some 50,000 U.S. contractors and tens of thousands of Iraqis who might need protection if we left the country.


Slowing things down further is the sheer volume of stuff that we would have to take with us — or destroy if we couldn't. Military officials recently told Congress that 45,000 ground-combat vehicles — a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees — are now in Iraq. They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps. These items have to be taken back home or destroyed, lest they fall into the hands of one faction or another. Pentagon officials will try to bring back as much of the downtime gear as possible — dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters. William (Gus) Pagonis, the Army logistics chief who directed the flood of supplies to Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War and their orderly withdrawal from the region, cites one more often overlooked hurdle: U.S. agricultural inspectors insist that, before it re-enters the U.S., Army equipment be free of any microscopic disease that, as Pagonis puts it, "can wipe out flocks of chickens and stuff like that."


Once the U.S. decides to pull its forces back, the security risks to troops leaving the battlefield would increase, and the faster the U.S. withdraws, the greater the dangers. Departing troops lose their focus and become easy targets, says Pagonis. Local militias usually try to prove their mettle by firing at departing columns. "It would be ugly," says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who supports a partial withdrawal. "You'd burn or blow up a lot of your equipment or hand it over to the Iraqis. You'd be subject to attack on your way down to the coast because on the way, people would say, 'We can either throw rose petals or shoot at 'em,' and they'd shoot at us." A gradual exit rather than an immediate one isn't merely the wiser course; it's the only course.



A reduction in the U.S. combat presence would probably produce one clear benefit: a lower U.S. casualty rate. But a chilling truth is that as the U.S. death toll declined, the Iraqi one would almost surely soar. Just how many Iraqis would die if the U.S. withdrew is anyone's guess, but almost everyone who has studied it believes the current rate of more than a thousand a month would spike dramatically. It might not resemble Rwanda, where more than half a million people were slaughtered in six months in 1994. But Iraq could bleed like the former Yugoslavia did from 1992 to 1995, when 250,000 perished.


There is no debate about why: in the wake of an American pullout, Baghdad would be quickly dominated by Shi'ite militias largely unbloodied by the American campaign. Already, well-armed security forces that pose as independent are riddled with militiamen who take direction from Shi'ite leaders. Death-squad killings of Sunnis would rise. Against such emboldened forces, Sunni insurgents and elements of Saddam Hussein's former regime would retaliate with their weapon of choice: car-bomb attacks against Shi'ite markets, shrines, police stations and recruiting depots.


One result of the military's "surge" strategy is that the U.S. has handed over to Sunni tribal sheiks much greater responsibility for their security — and even the weapons to back it up — in exchange for severing their links to al-Qaeda. That's a manageable risk while U.S. forces are nearby; if they depart, it becomes tinder in a dry forest. The danger would be not just sectarian slaughter but outright anarchy as well. "Our immediate concern," says a senior Arab diplomat, "is that sending a signal of complete withdrawal could encourage some elements in every faction in every political group that they can now impose their own agenda. It would be not only Shi'ite versus Sunni ... but [war] inside each community itself. The worst case is a Somalia-ization of Iraq."


Some experts believe Iraqis would, after a brief explosion of violence, regain control of their country. Indeed, there are those who think that is the best reason for the U.S. to set a date for a withdrawal now, to force the Iraqis to step up and take control before any kind of U.S. pullout begins to create a vacuum. But there are few indications that the Iraqi center, such as it is, can hold or that Iraq's neighbors will be much of a stabilizing influence.


The worst-case scenario is an Iraq war that becomes a regional conflict. Sunni sympathizers in the region — most notably in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria — would funnel arms and cash to their kinsmen in Iraq to counter the Shi'ites, just as the government of Iran is quietly helping the Shi'ites themselves. "One of the things we've seen elsewhere, whether it is Ireland or Palestine," says Jon Alterman, Middle East director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "is that when you have people outside the country that are doing the paying, you will continue to have proxies inside the country doing the killing."


It's easy to see how a reckless U.S. departure could spark a chain reaction that leads to further destabilization or even war among Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, three of the world's 15 top oil-exporting countries. Shi'ites who object to Saudi backing of the Sunnis might retaliate inside the kingdom — or Sunnis might take the fight into Iran. "We will have sectarian violence on a level that would likely trigger regional war," says Michèle Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank. "At that point, you are looking at a path you don't want to go down."

Given that the current U.S. force has been unable to curb sectarian killings, it's unreasonable to expect that a reduced U.S. troop presence would stop Sunnis and Shi'ites from killing one another. But even with a significantly smaller footprint, the U.S. would retain sufficient firepower on the ground and in the skies to guard against others trying to intervene. After a majority of U.S. troops depart, a military presence of some size will still be needed — not so much to referee a civil war, as U.S. forces are doing now, but to try to keep it from expanding. McCaffrey and others argue for cutting U.S. forces by no more than half for now. "If you end up with 10 combat brigades in Iraq at the end of this President's term" — down from 20 today — "you'd still have enough combat power" to deter outside actors from further stoking the fire.



Advocates of a phased withdrawal from Iraq still must overcome the Bush Administration's most vociferous argument against it: that Americans must stay in Iraq to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a safe haven there. As support from key Republicans has withered, the Pentagon has cranked up the al-Qaeda rhetoric. On July 17, the Administration released the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which said "Al-Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq" to plot attacks against the U.S. homeland. Bush has turned up the volume, mentioning al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech last month. "Leaving Iraq now," Bush said recently, would mean we'd "allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan ... People aren't just going to be content with driving America out of Iraq. Al-Qaeda wants to hurt us here."


Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the U.S. military estimates that al-Qaeda in Iraq — a group thought to number several thousand — accounts for only about 15% of the attacks in Iraq. (Other Sunni groups account for 70%, with Shi'ite militias responsible for the remaining 15%.) But, Cordesman says, those attacks are the most deadly and "probably do the most damage in pushing Iraq toward civil war." At the moment, al-Qaeda in Iraq is valuable to Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, even though the links between the Qaeda leaders and the jihadi shock troops in Iraq are tenuous. The violence perpetrated by al-Qaeda in Iraq helps the organization raise money and draw new recruits. The declassified NIE summary says al-Qaeda in Iraq helps al-Qaeda "energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for homeland attacks."

But it's also true that al-Qaeda in Iraq is on the run. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced the capture of the highest-ranking commander of the group in Iraq. When the U.S. leaves, many Iraqis say, they can deal with the terrorists and their patrons more harshly. The Anbar Salvation Council has been aggressively targeting al-Qaeda in that province, denying it safe haven in places it once controlled with an iron fist. The Administration has boasted in recent weeks that the Sunnis in Anbar are attacking elements of al-Qaeda. So why would that end if the U.S. withdrew? "If we withdraw from Iraq, a lot of the tensions we see today are going to be directed against al-Qaeda as well as against every other faction," says Cordesman. "So it's not going to be some sort of easy sanctuary for al-Qaeda."

But neither will the broader jihadist threat in Iraq or elsewhere vanish when we leave. Most plans for a reduced U.S. mission in Iraq — including the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker III and Lee Hamilton — call for retaining a small counterterrorism force there. "No one is going to complain about going after an al-Qaeda target," says Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, who advocates a gradual disengagement from the sectarian conflict. Even so, the U.S. needs to be realistic about what 75,000 U.S. troops can achieve. "I want to blow up al-Qaeda wherever we can, but I don't think we're going to have any particular capacity to do that if we cut our troop strength in half and pull back into the desert," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. Cordesman, who does not favor an immediate withdrawal, notes that all the worry about al-Qaeda in Iraq ignores the much larger threat that bin Laden's ideas already pose to U.S. interests. "Al-Qaeda does not have a center," he says. "Al-Qaeda operates in Pakistan; al-Qaeda operates in Afghanistan. It has distributed networks and affiliates in Algeria. It has ties, awkward as they are, to Hamas. We are talking about a network, which is international in character, which will be a major threat whether we win or lose in Iraq."



As exhausting as the enterprise in Iraq has been for Americans, it remains merely the most urgent of a wide range of challenges to global stability. While it can only be glimpsed, an end to the debacle in Iraq does not mean an end to America's responsibilities in the world. With the U.S. drawing down, Iraq would diminish as a focal point of anti-Americanism. With most U.S. troops exiting the region, Washington would have more leverage with Iran, which has continued its march toward nuclear weapons while the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq. And most important of all, the U.S. would regain the military, economic and intellectual bandwidth it once employed to advance its interests elsewhere and start rebuilding its reputation overseas.

But that will require the kind of diplomatic effort that this Administration has been reluctant to pursue. The most obvious place to start is Iraq, where U.S. diplomacy will still be needed to bring about a sustainable accord between Sunnis and Shi'ites, should they ever tire of fighting. A State Department official says what is needed is a greater willingness to engage hard-line forces on both sides of the sectarian divide as well as the Iranians and Syrians, all of whom will have a say in Iraq's future. Resistance to this idea comes from the White House, a U.S. diplomat says. "There is a reality on the ground in Iraq that we never really wanted to confront too much, but there are real politics in Iraq," says the official. "If we can tap into that and start working and engaging with Iraqis in a different way, we might actually become part of what emerges as a solution."


Beyond Iraq, a redoubled effort to build a viable Palestinian government that can eventually reach a settlement with Israel would undercut another source of anti-Americanism and Islamic radicalism. The U.S. must also attend to growing instability in Pakistan, a key but uncertain ally in its war on terrorism, and may need to send some of the troops coming out of Iraq to Afghanistan to shore up the shaky government in Kabul.


Can it be done? Michael Mandelbaum, who teaches U.S. foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, warns that potential gains in any salvage operation are limited, and this one is no different. "The goal here is damage limitation," he says, "not the kind of success envisioned when the operation began." Withdrawal from Iraq will be slow, messy and painful. But however difficult the passage, it is still possible to get to a place that is more secure than where we are now.

With reporting by Mark Kukis and Charles Crain/Baghdad, Scott Macleod/Cairo and Brian Bennett, Massimo Calabresi, Jay Newton-Small and Mark Thompson/Washington


Reviews of "How to get out of Iraq" by McGovern & Polk


The U.S. invasion of Iraq has brought about profound instability and major transformations in regional politics. The long-term implications of the continuing occupation of Iraq have yet to be determined. However, it has become clear to many analysts, and even some U.S. supporters of the war, that both the prestige of the United States and the country's ability to affect the course of events in the Middle East have been significantly reduced by Washington's Iraq adventure. In this crisp and cogently argued book, former senator McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, and scholar Polk (Understanding Iraq), a former JFK diplomat, offer a trenchant and straightforward critique of the war in Iraq. What makes their highly readable book unique is that it not only argues why the United States needs to disengage militarily from Iraq now (e.g., to prevent widening sectarian violence) but also clearly delineates practical steps for troop withdrawal (e.g., a phased process, with POW releases and reparations for expenditure of Iraqi funds). Essential reading for anybody who wants to cut through the maze of confusion that surrounds current U.S. policy in Iraq, this book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.—Nader Entessar



After he retired from politics, Senator George McGovern resumed his prior profession of teaching history and headed the Middle East Policy Council in Washington for six years. William R. Polk taught Middle East history and politics at Harvard and Chicago, published many books on the region, and has closely studied Iraq since he first visited Baghdad in 1947. In 2005 he published Understanding Iraq, a highly readable 213 page history.


The two authors have collaborated on a book that recaps what Iraq is and who the Iraqis are, analyzes the effects of the invasion and occupation on Iraq and on America, and then lays out in a single chapter a 24 point exit strategy, followed by a brief warning about the dire consequences

of our not making a reasonably rapid exit. They foresee a phased withdrawal of all foreign military troops by June 30, 2007, including the 25,000 mercenaries euphemistically called "Personal Security Details" provided by 50 foreign firms. They put their plan's cost at about $14 billion -- a true bargain considering projections that another two years of the occupation would cost at least $350 billion. They insist that the plan must be implemented as a coordinated whole.


To facilitate the transition, McGovern and Polk urge the Iraqi government to request the short-term services of an international force to help police the country during and after our withdrawal, perhaps remaining for as much as two years. This force should be drawn from Arab and/or other

Muslim countries, whose personnel would be much better equipped with an understanding of the culture, religion, language and traditions of the Iraqi populace to carry out police work.


There is not space here to describe the plan's other 22 points in detail, but a good many are worthy of mention. For instance, the authors view the training of a permanent Iraqi national police force as essential, but oppose recreation of a national army, which in the past has been more disruptive than helpful. They also call for Washington to release all prisoners of war and to close our detention centers as soon as possible. To counter the impression that we plan to stay in Iraq long-term we must cease construction of some 14 "enduring" American military bases now under way (five of which are as large as cities). For similar reasons, we should vacate the Green Zone by the end of 2007.


The authors also urge the U.S. to fund a project to hire and train Iraqis to find and destroy mines, unexploded ordnance and depleted uranium; pay reparations for loss of lives and property; and allow Iraq to renegotiate oil contracts entered into during the occupation. Finally, though it may be hard for us to do it, America should express its condolences for the large number of Iraqis killed, incapacitated, incarcerated and tortured. This cost free gesture would help greatly to restore our reputation in Iraq, the region, and the world.


McGovern and Polk close by calling on all Americans to acknowledge the debt we owe to the men and women who served in Iraq, and to treat them as well as were the returning veterans from World War II: "Now is the time for healing the wounds of war and trying to understand its lessons. The veterans of the war in Iraq especially need and deserve a comprehensive rehabilitation -- physically, mentally, educationally and economically, including the highly successful offerings of the World War II G.I. Bill of Rights."


This brief book provides a reasonable, workable and inexpensive road map for extricating ourselves from the Iraq quagmire. It should be essential reading not only for all decision makers and their advisers in Washington, but all Americans.


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