War Stories

How To Withdraw

Three plans for leaving Iraq: Which is best?

Now that some sort of troop withdrawal from Iraq seems in the cards, it’s time to focus on questions of strategy and tactics: How many U.S. troops will leave Iraq and how quickly? Which troops will stay and for how long? What will they do? Where do the departing troops go? How do we pull out without triggering civil war or appearing to surrender?

If President George W. Bush has answers, he’s not saying. It takes a close parsing of his recent “strategy for victory” speeches—supplemented by the more explicit remarks of his secretary of state and others—to realize that they imply the start of a pullout soon after the New Year.

It’s regrettable that Rep. John Murtha, who pushed the withdrawal option to the political center, made his move before Iraq’s Dec. 15 elections. A U.S. pullout would be far more palatable—politically, strategically, and morally—if it at least appeared to come at the request of the new, democratically chosen Iraqi government. The Bush administration may even have been leaning toward that scenario before Murtha spoke up.

But now the issue is out there. So, how do we do it? Withdrawal plans are wafting through the journals and op-ed pages. Let’s look at a few.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who submitted a surprisingly impractical plan for winning (or at least not losing too badly) to the Washington Post this past September, wrote another odd piece for the Dec. 6 New York Times. Clark should know this territory; he led troops in Vietnam, commanded the war over Kosovo, and helped negotiate the peace in Bosnia. Yet his latest piece seems like something scribbled over breakfast.

On the one hand, Clark calls for deploying 20,000 U.S. troops to provide “training, supervision, and backup” along Iraq’s borders, as well as 30,000 troops to step up operations against insurgents. Yet he also recommends drawing down 30,000 troops after Iraq’s elections. Which is it—more troops, fewer troops, both?

His math is merely confusing; his politics are head-spinning. The Iraqi government, he writes, “must begin to enforce the ban on armed militias.” Ideally, he adds, this should be done voluntarily, but “American muscle will have to be made available as a last resort.” Is Clark really proposing that, beyond the already exhausting tasks of securing cities and fighting insurgents, U.S. troops should start battling and disarming the Kurdish peshmerga and Muqtada al-Sadr’s army?

“And,” Clark goes on, “we must start using America’s diplomatic strength with Syria and Iran” to get those two countries to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs. OK. Any suggestions how? Clark seems to think we still control what happens in and around Iraq, when the most basic, unnerving fact about the present phase of our occupation is that we control so very little.

For this reason, the two most thoughtful and persuasive essays on the Iraqi endgame are also the least ambitious and reassuring: James Fallows’ article in the December issue of the Atlantic and Barry Posen’s plan for an exit strategy in the forthcoming January/February Boston Review.

Fallows explains all too clearly why the Iraqi security forces aren’t up to the task of defending or stabilizing the country by themselves and why they won’t be for a long time. But rather than leaving his article as a thoroughly researched piece of journalism, he takes a step out on the plank and asks what we should do about it.

“What is needed for an honorable departure,” he writes, “is, at minimum, a country that will not go to war with itself, and citizens who will not turn to large-scale murder.” If we can manage that goal, he states, we can leave in good conscience, regardless of what might happen a few years down the road.

However, he recognizes that even this goal may be beyond our resolve and resources. It requires a “national army strong enough to deter militias … and loyal enough to the new Iraq to resist becoming the tool of any faction.” It also requires policemen who are “sufficiently competent, brave, and honest to keep civilians safe.”

This can be done, even as we withdraw combat troops, but only if we step up training—building more facilities, recruiting more translators, and changing our military culture so that the trainer of an Iraqi battalion gets more rewards than the commander of an American battalion—and only if we maintain an active presence of U.S. air, logistical, medical, intelligence, and communications forces, and do so “for years.”

Fallows’ capper: The U.S. government should either do all this or “face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq.” This is the fallacy of Bush’s “stay the course” policy: It leads nowhere. Fallows insists that we either make the commitment—which doesn’t require ground troops but does require patience, money, and imagination—or pack it in; anything else is a waste.

Barry Posen, a military historian in MIT’s security studies program, goes further than Fallows in some ways and not as far in others. The present course of open-ended occupation, he argues, “infantilizes” Iraqi politics. As long as everyone thinks our troops will stick around, the Iraqi army will never grow up, the Kurds will continue to flirt with secession, the Sunnis will blame their diminished power on our occupation (not on their minority status), and the majority Shiites will rule without seeing a need to make compromises. Only after we start to leave will Iraq’s army take its responsibilities seriously, and only then will the sectarian factions realize the limits of their power and seek reconciliation.

Posen’s five-point plan:

First, make clear we’re withdrawing most U.S. forces within 18 months. Use the time to train and organize an army and police force capable of internal security.

Second, retain—for a longer period—a small contingent of special operations forces to advise the Iraqi army and help with command, control, and intelligence.

Third, maintain an “over-the-horizon” force in the region to deter and defend against an invasion of Iraq’s borders.

Fourth, let everyone know of the continuing U.S. interest in the Persian Gulf and Iraq’s territorial integrity. Don’t just try to persuade Iran and Syria to help out on this score; offer them inducements. For instance, drop the rhetoric about “regime change” and “spreading democracy” in exchange for their cooperation on a stable Iraq.

Fifth, aim for a stalemate in Iraq’s ongoing sectarian conflict, with the ultimate hope of inducing a loose federation—each faction essentially governing itself—within a central government that does little more than divvy up oil revenue.

I’m a bit leery of this last point. Posen has said, in a radio interview and in e-mail correspondence with me, that, once we leave, Iraq’s factions—Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—will need to take a true measure of their relative power. This will almost certainly involve some fighting, perhaps even civil war, but he sees this process as a precondition to an enduring political settlement.

He may be right, but civil wars—especially those inflamed by religious rivalry—tend to rage well beyond rational limits. Millions of people could die, in which case little comfort should be derived from a calculation that the combatants will strike some balance of power in the long run.

I emerge from this debate somewhat torn. I agree with Posen’s case for a timed withdrawal. Fallows’ proposal for an open-ended commitment is, by his own admission, unlikely to be followed, and I don’t accept—maybe I don’t want to accept—his notion that the only alternative is sheer chaos. Posen spells out a plan to keep internal turmoil from spilling out into regional warfare, but I think more should be done to dampen the internal conflict as well. A civil war, fought to a stalemate, is not an acceptable outcome, nor do I see how the neighboring powers can be kept out of the fray once it ignites.

One thing is clear: The serious withdrawal plans are not “cut-and-run” jobs. They’re designed, on their own, to promote security and stability. None of them—not even Murtha’s—call for a total U.S. pullout. This isn’t a point in the debate, and the White House shouldn’t be allowed to get away with pretending that it is.