America in Iraq Three Years Later




Why we should leave

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on March 19, 2006

The gruesome discovery of dozens of men found shot to death execution-style last week provided more evidence that on the eve of the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the country teeters on the brink of an all-out sectarian civil war.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, recently told a Senate committee that sectarian violence was now becoming a greater security concern than the bloody Sunni-led insurgency that has claimed thousands of American and Iraqi lives. And in a speech Monday, President Bush made reference twice to various groups’ attempts to ignite a civil war among Iraq’s fractious Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

But even as the president suggested that the facts on the ground were changing, he offered no change in U.S. strategy. “We will not lose our nerve,” Bush declared, reaffirming his “stay the course” posture.

Abizaid did tell reporters Thursday that the United States was still planning on reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq if the battling factions manage to form a unity government. But he did not give any specifics on how many troops could leave, nor has the administration set any timeline for withdrawal.

But keeping U.S. troops indefinitely in Iraq will do nothing to calm growing tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites, who are by far the largest group in the country and in the government. That anger has only worsened as some Sunnis waged an insurgency to try to retake control of the country they ran for decades and, more recently, as Shiite-dominated police and military have been accused of torturing Sunnis and operating death squads.

No good military options exist. What is needed is a political deal, a power-sharing compromise devised by elected Iraqi leaders. Without a deal that equitably divides Iraq’s oil wealth and gives all the major political factions a stake in the new federal government, Iraqis will have little incentive to build a unified state.

One effective way to get all sides to make a deal is to say we’re going to leave Iraq — and set a timetable for doing so.

Such a plan has three other major advantages. It will take the strain off our ground forces, which have been pushed to the breaking point. It will allow the United States to redeploy many of the troops stationed in Iraq to long-neglected hot spots in the war on terror. And it will deprive terrorists worldwide of a rallying cry against the United States, which they have portrayed as an occupation force in a Muslim-majority country.

At the center of America’s Iraq debate is what to do about U.S. troops. Some leaders, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argue that the United States should send more troops. But “extra” troops do not exist; the U.S. Army has been stretched thin by three years of continuous deployment in Iraq. And increasing U.S. troop presence would further inflame a precarious situation in Iraq by feeding perceptions of occupation; nearly all Iraqis reject U.S. troop increases. The American people also do not support this option: Only one in 10 favor increasing troops.

President Bush espouses linking troop withdrawals with conditions in Iraq, a position also vocally endorsed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., among others. But this is a recipe for quagmire. Conditions do not have a chance of improving until Iraqis understand that the U.S. military is not planning to serve as a crutch indefinitely.

Some policy analysts have proposed keeping the troop levels the same but using them differently. One proposal — by Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations — would have the United States pick sides and use its military power to force a political solution. That proposal, explained in the accompanying article, is almost certain to fail, as have other U.S. attempts to micromanage Iraq’s opaque politics over the last three years.

The reality is that the U.S. military is neither inclined nor qualified to meddle deeply in Iraqi politics; it does not have enough people who speak Arabic and understand Iraqi politics and culture.

Still others — Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. among them — have argued for a rapid withdrawal. But a precipitous departure risks all-out civil war that could draw in Iraq’s neighbors and close off any possibility for Iraqi security forces — which now number more than 240,000 — to stand on their own.

There are two key problems with America’s current debate on Iraq. First, it is narrowly focused on the troops, ignoring the fact that the diplomatic and economic levers the United States has at its disposal will have a greater chance of stabilizing Iraq. Second, it fails to examine Iraq in the broader context of the global threats the United States faces.

The best alternative is a balanced plan named strategic redeployment, which calls for a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq over the next two years and which has the backing of former Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

The plan began circulating in Washington in September after Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration assistant defense secretary, and I published a paper on it at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

The proposal says the United States should draw down its troop presence from its present level of 136,000 to 60,000 by the end of the year, and to virtually zero by the end of 2007. It also encourages more vigorous diplomacy in the region and in Iraq, to bring the country’s factions together, and redeploys some of the troops leaving Iraq to other countries where anti-American terrorists appear to be gaining footholds.

The gradual drawdown would allow U.S. troops to continue providing crucial support to the nascent Iraqi security forces. (The performance of Iraqi security forces, while it has not met expectations, has by most accounts improved.) But the plan also clears the way for a political solution and recognizes that current troop levels are unsustainable without a draft.

It has become clear that if we still have more than 130,000 ground soldiers in Iraq a year from now, we will destroy the all-volunteer Army. Keeping such a large contingent of troops there will require the Pentagon to send many units back to Iraq for a third time and to activate reserve and Guard forces a second or third time. To paraphrase Vietnam-era Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, while we sent the Army to Iraq to save Iraq, we now have to redeploy the Army to save the Army.

Under strategic redeployment, all Guard and reserve troops would be demobilized and would immediately return to the United States. This would allow the Guard and reserve to return to their policies of troops not spending more than one year out of five on active duty and let the Guard focus on shoring up gaps in homeland security.

Approximately 20,000 soldiers would be sent this year to bolster U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan and support counterterrorist operations in Africa and Asia. In Afghanistan, more troops are urgently needed to beat back the resurging Taliban forces and to maintain security throughout the country. In the Horn of Africa, countries like Somalia remain a breeding ground for terrorists.

Another 14,000 of the soldiers serving in Iraq would be positioned nearby in Kuwait starting this year. Along with a Marine expeditionary force located offshore in the Persian Gulf, these “over the horizon” forces would be well-positioned to strike at any terrorist camps in Iraq and guard against any major acts that risk further destabilizing the region, such as an incursion of conventional forces from Turkey or Iran into Iraq.

Even with all those redeployments, the number of soldiers deployed overseas in the war on terror would drop by more than 40,000 in the first year. This would enable the Army and Marines to return to the time-tested policy of allowing a soldier or Marine to spend at least two months at home for every month deployed abroad.

The key to strategic redeployment is that it acknowledges up front that Iraq’s problems cannot be solved by American boots on the ground. A timetable for withdrawal will spur Iraq’s battling factions to try harder to reach a compromise before U.S. troops leave. But U.S. leaders should also actively work to help Iraqi leaders negotiate and to draw in leaders from the region.

The redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq requires that Iraq’s neighbors play a more active role in supporting Iraq’s stability and reconstruction. Iraq’s neighbors have a better chance of persuading recalcitrant Iraqis to compromise than we do. It was, after all, regional diplomacy and engagement that put an end to Lebanon’s civil war. Thursday’s announcement that Iran and the United States had agreed to hold talks on how to halt Iraq’s sectarian violence was welcome news.

Until our leaders take more bold steps to motivate others to provide help, our troops are likely to find themselves increasingly in the cross-fire of sectarian and ethnic conflict. In that case, the United States may end up exacerbating the tensions Gen. Abizaid is worried about and may be forced to choose sides in what may be an emerging full-blown sectarian civil war.

Not setting a timeline holds the United States hostage to terrorists and cynical Iraqi politicians like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who blamed the United States for the recent Sunni-Shiite violence. Americans, in the end, will be safer if our Army is rested and ready to take on necessary assignments, if our National Guard and reserve are home to respond to terrorism or other disasters and if terrorists can no longer use Iraq as a recruiting tool. The time has come for decisive action to put the United States back in charge of its national security.

Brian Katulis is director of democracy and public diplomacy on the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress. Katulis, who worked at the Department of State during the Clinton administration, wrote this article for Perspective.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow