Center for American Progress

What’s Really Scary: Staying the Course Boosts Terrorism

What’s Really Scary: Staying the Course Boosts Terrorism

Until the U.S. shifts strategies in Iraq, the only winners will be our terrorist enemy Al Qaeda and its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zarwahiri.

Despite mountains of evidence that the Bush Administration’s misguided and mismanaged operations in Iraq are contributing to the spread of Islamist extremism in that country and around the world, the president and some like-minded conservatives still argue that any change in strategy is tantamount to a victory for the terrorists.

In fact, the only real winners in the Bush administration’s stay the course strategy in Iraq are America’s top public enemies: terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zarwahiri, who are apparently both still alive and well more than five years after 9/11. And should the Bush administration continue to resist setting a definitive deadline for redeploying our troops in Iraq, as even our military leaders in Iraq increasingly concede may be necessary, the only real losers will be the American people and our democratic allies abroad.

Let’s first consider the facts before examining serious strategic alternatives for winning the war against terrorist networks. Let’s start with the overwhelming evidence that operations in Iraq have failed to make Americans safer:

  • Global terrorism remains a major threat. A National Intelligence Estimate has concluded that operations in Iraq have fueled jihadist ideology and cultivated terrorist supporters.
  • Mission undone in Afghanistan. The diversion of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003 has left Afghanistan exposed to a resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
  • Growing instability in the Middle East. The mismanagement of Iraq operations has opened the door for an unprecedented expansion of Iranian influence and power in the Gulf region. Iran’s government has taken a harder line, threatening to wipe Israel off of the map and accelerating its nuclear research program.

Nor is it feasible for the Bush administration to continue insisting that more of the same failed “stay-the-course” strategy will eventually lead to victory. The reason? Escalating costs in Iraq for the U.S. are unsustainable:

  • The human toll. More than 2,800 American military personnel have been killed and 20,000 wounded.
  • The financial toll. The Bush administration has spent more than $300 billion of U.S. taxpayer money.
  • The equipment toll. More than three years of continuous deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq has worn down and created billion-dollar short-falls in Army and Marine equipment.

What’s worse, Iraq is caught in a political stalemate as violence worsens and reconstruction efforts in the country falter amid chaos and corruption. As U.S. Major General J.D. Thurman, the senior commander of American troops in Baghdad, said recently to New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon, referring to U.S. efforts to goad the Iraqis toward unification, “Part of the problem is that we want this more than they do.”

  • Despite the formation of a new government in May, Iraq’s leaders remain deeply divided over the direction the country should take, yet it’s clear that a solid majority of Iraqis want American troops to leave their country. Seventy-one percent of Iraqis, according a recent poll, want U.S. forces to withdraw within a year, and a majority of Iraqis believe a withdrawal would strengthen the Iraqi government and decrease the violence.
  • Sectarian cleansing has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and hundreds of thousands more have been internally displaced by intra-Iraqi fighting during the last year.
  • Iraq’s political transition and increasing violence have contributed to growing ethnic and sectarian divisions and empowering extremist voices like Shiite radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.
  • After spending more than $20 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money and $40 billion of Iraq’s own resources, Iraq is left with thousands of unfinished reconstruction projects. Total assistance provided to Iraq by the U.S. since 2003 is roughly equal to total assistance—adjusted for inflation—provided to Germany from 1946 to 1952, and double the assistance given to Japan from 1946 to 1952.

Moreover, the vast majority of Americans now believe it’s time to consider realistic strategic alternatives to the utter chaos our troops now find themselves policies.

  • Strong disapproval for the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq. Six in ten Americans disapprove of the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, a fairly stable percentage since the summer of 2005.
  • Increasing support for a timetable for withdrawing troops. Six in ten Americans support setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, about one-third oppose a timetable, and the rest are unsure.
  • Divisions over withdrawing troops. Less than one in ten Americans support increasing U.S. troops in Iraq. A majority supports decreasing the troop presence, with 17 percent supporting the withdrawal of all troops by the end of the year and another 31 percent supporting the withdrawal of all troops within 12 months. 42 percent think that the U.S. should withdraw, but take as many years as needed.

The upshot: It’s time for the Bush administration and congressional leaders to consider strategic alternatives. The Center for American Progress has a Progressive Strategy for Iraq. We recommend that the United States:

  • Undertake military redeployment in Iraq. The U.S. should reduce its troops at a rate of 9,000 per month from its present level of about 130,000, to 60,000 by the end of 2006, and to virtually zero by the end of 2007. The troops remaining in Iraq through 2007 would focus on training Iraqi security forces, eradicating terrorist cells, providing logistical support to Iraqi security forces, and providing border security. All National Guard units would return in 2006 to stand ready to respond to potential natural disasters and terrorist attacks on the homeland.
  • Double U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. should double its troops in Afghanistan and integrate U.S. forces with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to create a unified NATO command led by an American three-star general.
  • Conduct strong diplomacy. The U.S. must shift from nation building to conflict resolution in Iraq. Working with the U.N., President Bush should appoint a presidential envoy (a former secretary of state) to organize a Geneva peace conference. The conference would bring Iraq’s top leaders together in a setting modeled after the Dayton Accords that ended the conflict in the former Yugoslavia or the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. The conference would aim to broker a deal on such issues as security, militias, and the division of power and oil resources.
  • Launch a Gulf stability initiative. The Bush administration should launch a multilateral diplomatic effort to develop a regional security framework for confidence building measures and regional security cooperation among countries in the region. This framework will be helpful not only in dealing with the aftermath of the U.S. redeployment from Iraq, but also with the growing nuclear capabilities of Iran.
  • Put Iraq’s reconstruction on the right track. The Bush administration should develop a more focused approach for correcting the mistakes it has made in reconstruction efforts in Iraq. It should work to gather more support for international funds to provide emergency humanitarian and economic assistance to Iraq. International reconstruction funds should also offer conditional assistance to governing authorities in Iraq’s 18 provinces based on their willingness to make a realistic power-sharing agreement and to root out corruption.
  • Counter extremist ideology in the global battle of ideas. The U.S. should develop a realistic strategy to confront falsehoods promoted by its extremist adversaries, especially Islamist extremists. It should move beyond a narrow strategy of democracy promotion focused on elections. The U.S. should also make key policy shifts—including declaring it does not seek permanent bases in Iraq and intensifying its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Read the Center’s Policy Brief for more information:

For more details on the Center’s policy prescriptions on Iraq and America’s global war against terrorist networks, please see the following reports and analyses:

For more on these issues from our sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, please see the following reports and analyses:

Contact our Iraq experts, Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis for additional information and comments.

To contact one of our experts please call/e-mail Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy, at 202-682-1611 or [email protected].

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

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