Strategic Redeployment and Reset: A New Policy for Iraq

The next administration faces a range of bad policy options in Iraq, each with costly and unfavorable outcomes for U.S. interests. The best strategy among these available options is a policy of strategic redeployment from Iraq as part of an overall strategic reset of U.S. national security.1

This paper highlights three core components of that proposed strategy and makes the case for a strategic reset in the Middle East in light of recent events in Iraq.

Three Core Components

1. Implement a phased redeployment of U.S. forces. The next president should make a clean break from the past by ordering the military to begin developing and then implementing a plan for a full redeployment of U.S. forces by 2010 at the latest. Some redeployed U.S. forces would remain over the horizon in neighboring countries, others would provide reinforcements in Afghanistan, and most would return to the United States.

2. Undertake international and regional diplomatic initiatives to stabilize Iraq and the region. The next administration should work for a temporary extension of the current U. N. mandate and use the first 100 days in office to organize an international and regional diplomatic surge modeled on the plan outlined by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in 2006 but updated to reflect new realities. The end goal of this diplomatic surge is to marshal broader support for Iraq, building on existing mechanisms such as the U.N.’s International Compact for Iraq and recent regional security meetings between Iraq, its neighbors, and other key global powers.

3. Encouraging Iraq’s leaders to organize a special constitutional convention. Working with other global and regional powers, the United States should help develop a new framework for encouraging power-sharing in Iraq. A sustainable solution to Iraq’s internal conflicts requires a comprehensive political effort to jumpstart Iraq’s political transition—a new effort to help Iraq’s leaders make tough decisions about power sharing and their country’s future. If Iraq’s political transition remains deadlocked by the end of 2008, the United States should encourage Iraq’s leaders to organize a special constitutional convention with support from the United Nations to address the underlying disputes over power-sharing that continue to animate Iraq’s internal conflicts.

The Case for Strategic Redeployment and Reset

A strategic redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq as part of a broader reset of U.S. national security policy would seek to achieve three main goals:

1. Put U.S. national security priorities back in order

Because of the Iraq war, overall U.S. national security strategy remains out of balance, with resources not properly matched to the global threats faced by the United States. The current strategy has also undermined our key national security resources, including military readiness.

The Iraq war continues to divert attention and assets from other national security challenges, including instability and safe havens for the Al Qaeda movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, with U.S. forces mired in Iraq’s internal conflicts, the United States has lacked the moral, political, and military power to deal effectively with Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions.

U.S. service members are deploying at unsustainable rates, resulting in a growing military readiness crisis. The missions set by the Bush administration have strained the military. The Army has lowered it recruiting standards to unprecedented levels, and the United States no longer has a strategic ground reserve as a result of the extended deployments.

Proposals for an extended military presence make little sense at a time when the Iraq war threatens to break our all-volunteer military—a crisis so bad that last year the Army raised potential signing bonuses to $45,000. The United States has considerable resources, and it could always institute a military draft if needed to meet these challenges. But the Iraq war’s unpopularity with the American public makes a draft highly improbable.

This open-ended commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq has weakened U.S. public support for the war. Analysts and military planners may talk about a “long war,” but they have not built the public support necessary to garner the resources to fight such a war in a democratic system. Despite last year’s security gains, the Iraq war remains unpopular with the majority of Americans. Public frustration at a continued military engagement in Iraq with no end in sight risks undermining public support for future global engagements.

2. Advance Iraq’s stalled consolidation

The recent declines in violence are attributable to the shift in U.S. military tactics introduced in the 2007 surge, the displacements caused by widespread sectarian cleansing, Muqtada Sadr’s ceasefire, and the decision by Sunni tribes to turn against foreign radical Islamist fighters. But this policy has failed to produce a sustainable security environment or provide much hope for an enduring political consolidation in Iraq. Instead, different ethnic and sectarian factions are attempting to consolidate their power over certain parts of the country.

Indeed, continued political deadlock among Iraq’s leaders alongside rising violence in recent weeks raises questions about the central premise of the surge—that a temporary increase of U.S. troops and a shift in military tactics would foster a more favorable environment for Iraq’s leaders to strike power-sharing deals. In fact, Iraq’s political transition is largely stalled where it was at the start of 2006, with no major substantive gains on the disputes over sharing power.

Moreover, key tactics of the surge, such as providing military and financial support to irregular forces such as the Sunni Awakenings movements, have undermined the process of achieving a sustainable consolidation. Instead, these newly re-armed Sunni militias now argue they need political power commensurate with their newfound military clout.

Two national elections, a provincial election, and a constitutional referendum in 2005 have produced an Iraqi political system incapable of tackling the core issues that animate Iraq’s conflicts. Iraq’s leaders remain fundamentally at odds over what Iraq is and should be, how power is and should be distributed, and who controls and should control the nation’s oil wealth.

Iraqis remain as bitterly divided as they were at the start of 2007, and the environment of mistrust remains strong. The various sectarian and ethnic groups fight to control and distribute the country’s resources and jobs, and provide the people with basic needs such as safety and security, and services such as food, water, electricity, and healthcare. Because of sharp divisions, Iraq’s national government has made little progress on the fundamental questions related to constitutional reform, oil and revenue sharing, and the balance of power between national and provincial governments

Due to the lack of political reconciliation, the Bush administration cannot articulate a clear and realistic end result in Iraq precisely because it has not acknowledged that a sustainable power-sharing agreement in Iraq is unlikely to result from the current course or some other modified course premised on using U.S. policy tools to bring all of Iraq’s internal factions to the political bargaining table. U.S. military forces simply lack the size, reach, depth, and dexterity to achieve some sort of sustainable political equilibrium in a bitterly divided Iraq.

The open-ended commitment of U.S. troops to Iraq serves as a disincentive to Iraq’s leadership to resolve their disputes over power-sharing. In essence, unconditionally committing U.S. troops to an enduring presence in Iraq has fostered a culture of dysfunctional and dangerous dependency on the U.S. military among some Iraqi leaders and factions. These leaders use the imperfect security umbrella provided by U.S. forces to maintain their grip on power without taking tangible steps forward to reconcile their differences with other leaders.

From a broader perspective, the overall U.S. approach suffers from strategic confusion. For example, in southern Iraq, U.S. forces frequently engage on the side of intra-Shi’a struggles, frequently supporting the Shi’a faction closely aligned with Iran against nationalists.

To break this continued cycle of dependency and step away from this convoluted approach, the United States needs to send a clear signal that it plans to remove its troops from Iraq with a clear date. This will focus the minds of Iraq’s leaders and intensify diplomatic efforts coordinated with Iraq’s neighbors and other international powers to build a framework that helps Iraq’s leaders resolve their conflicts. But for such diplomacy to have a real impact, it must come combined with a credible plan for redeployment—not some muddled half measure.

This policy path is not without risks or costs. Southern Iraq experienced some instability in the wake of British troop withdrawals last year, as will the rest of the country in the wake of a U.S. troop redeployment in 2009 and 2010. But these actions are more likely to achieve a sustainable consolidation and equilibrium than other alternatives. The risks are manageable, and the costs to U.S. vital interests of a strategic redeployment and reset policy are less in the long run than a continued open-ended commitment.

3. Motivate other global and regional powers to engage more on Iraq

Too often, discussions on Iraq get mired in the weeds of the various intra-Iraqi disputes and details of possible long-term security training and assistance programs without strong connection to the political dynamics within Iraq and the broader Middle East. In the coming years, getting to stable equilibrium inside of Iraq will require some degree of accommodation and cooperation with Iraq’s neighbors.

Iraq’s neighbors have stakes in key aspects of Iraq’s internal conflicts. The consequences of an escalated conflict in Iraq are dire for these countries—more refugees, the possible spread of attacks by transnational terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and more criminality and lawlessness. This is why a sustained set of regional diplomacy initiatives is necessary to help lessen the violence within Iraq and help reduce the potential threat of these conflicts spilling beyond Iraq’s borders.

The Bush administration finally began the process of reaching out to Iraq’s neighbors by participating in regional conferences in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Regional working groups on refugees, fuel imports, and border security were created. The administration also began bilateral discussions with Iran on issues of mutual interest in Iraq in late May 2007.

This set of regional engagements may have delivered important results. By the end of 2007, for example, top U.S. commanders in Iraq noted a significant decrease in attacks linked to Iran. Similar regional security and diplomatic initiatives are necessary on Iraq’s other borders with Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The goal of these initiatives should be targeted—specific objectives of securing border outposts and setting up cross-border communications between different governing authorities would be a good start on some fronts, including Iran.

The United Nations can play a helpful role in working to reconcile Iraq’s political factions and addressing the needs of displaced Iraqis. The International Compact for Iraq, launched last year under the auspices for the United Nations, offers a viable framework for organizing long-term international support for Iraq. The United States could take part in a long-term, truly multilateral effort to assist Iraq, conditioned on Iraq’s performance in advancing national reconciliation and reform.

But in order to garner broader support, the next U.S. president must demonstrate that she or he is willing to make a clean break from previous policies and order a phased redeployment of U.S. troops.

1.The full plan is available here.