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Some have asserted that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will take two years or more, but we believe it is not only possible, but necessary, to conduct a safe and responsible redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq in no more than 10 months. Our military can accomplish such a task, should it be assigned, if it uses all elements of U.S. military power, focused on our land forces’ proficiencies in maneuver warfare and logistics.
There is significant disagreement and confusion about the time necessary to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq. Proponents of an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq have asserted that a withdrawal of over 140,000 American troops and equipment would be fraught with risk, uncertainty, and overwhelming logistical complications. According to a recent ABC News piece, several commanders in Iraq stated that there was “no way” a withdrawal of one to two brigades per month could work logistically—although none of them agreed to be quoted on the record.
The debate over how to conduct an American withdrawal has gravitated back and forth between those arguing that there must be either a rapid, precipitous withdrawal, and those advocating for a long, drawn-out redeployment. Many who argue for an extended redeployment over several years do so simply in order to “stay the course” in Iraq, and cherry-pick logistical issues to make the case for an extended U.S. presence.
Deciding between a swift or extended redeployment, however, is a false choice. Both options are logistically feasible, but this report will demonstrate that an orderly and safe withdrawal is best achieved over an 8 to 10 month period. This report, written in consultation with military planners and logistics experts, is not intended to serve as a playbook for our military planners; it is a guide to policymakers and the general public about what is realistically achievable. A massive, yet safe and orderly redeployment of U.S. forces, equipment, and support personnel is surely daunting—but it is well within the exceptional logistical capabilities of the U.S. military.
It is necessary now more than ever for the United States to commit to a responsible phased withdrawal. This must be done because, as many analysts have noted, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has produced several unintended consequences. A large and indefinite military presence in Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda and the Taliban to reconstitute itself, diverted U.S. attention from the war in Afghanistan, weakened the United States’ ability to project its hard and soft power around the world, and strengthened Iranian influence throughout the greater Middle East.
The latest unintended consequence is widespread Iraqi opposition to the seemingly indefinite American troop presence. The Bush administration’s positions on the bilateral Status of Forces and Strategic Framework Agreements has created a broad Iraqi political consensus in favor of a U.S. commitment to withdraw its forces from the country.
Recent calls from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, his cabinet, and the majority of the Iraqi Parliament for a specific timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq represents the beginning of a broad cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc that could provide the organizing principles for accommodation in the short term and eventual reconciliation. No such consensus yet exists among Iraqis as to what the new Iraq will be, but broad consensus does exist around the belief that no genuine, sustainable Iraqi unity can develop while the Iraqi government continues to be underwritten by a large foreign military presence.
Despite Maliki’s many statements supporting a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, many supporters of remaining in Iraq mistakenly argue that Maliki is just pandering to his constituents. Many of these same people thought we would be greeted as liberators when we invaded and occupied Iraq, ignoring the fact that resistance to foreigners is an integral part of Iraq’s national identity and that it is the Iraqis, not the United States, that will determine their fate.
The United States must therefore move beyond a discussion about the effect of the surge, and seize this opportunity offered by the Iraqis to take control of their own security by beginning a responsible phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Such a withdrawal gives the United States the best opportunity to achieve its goals in Iraq and advance overall U.S. security interests in the greater Middle East.
Iraqi leaders are increasingly eager and able to take over their own affairs. Unlike during the Iraqi elections in 2005, scores of Sunni political parties are preparing to run in the provincial elections originally scheduled for this fall, and Iraqi Security Forces have taken the lead in several operations from Mosul to Basra. Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer currently in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, told Congress last month that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for Iraq’s internal security as early as April 2009.
Those opposed to a timetable for withdrawal make the argument that setting such a timetable will undermine the gains made by the surge of 30,000 American troops into Iraq in the first half of 2007. According to Gen. David Petraeus, the situation in Iraq is too volatile to project a withdrawal date. In fact, Petraeus has it exactly backward. It is not listening to the Iraqi government that will endanger the gains we have made in the last year.
There can be no doubt that violence has reached its lowest levels since 2004, but supporters of maintaining an indefinite American troop presence in Iraq attribute the current reduction in violence solely to the simple increase in American combat forces and ignore other factors that have contributed to today’s improved security environment. These other factors were either directly linked to the prospect of an American withdrawal or had nothing to do with the surge in the first place. Not setting a date will actually undermine these gains.
The recent decline in violence in Iraq from the record levels of 2006 and early 2007 is due in large part to the emergence of Sunni “awakening” groups and Sons of Iraq militias. These groups were co-opted by U.S. forces in the early fall of 2006, long before the surge even began, and were in part a response to the widespread belief by Sunni’s in Anbar that the United States would not be remaining in Iraq indefinitely.
According to commanders on the ground, the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal was the main impetus for Sunni cooperation. Major General John Allen, a Marine Commander in Anbar, has stated that the rising pro-withdrawal sentiment in the United States, which was reflected in the victory in the 2006 midterm election of pro-withdrawal candidates, had a major effect on the Sunnis. According to Allen, the election “did not go unnoticed….They talked about it all the time.” He went on to say that the Marines in Anbar, “from top to bottom, reinforced the message sent by the [2006 election results] by saying, ‘We are leaving…. We don’t know when we are leaving, but we don’t have much time, so you [the Anbaris] better get after this.’”
Brigadier Gen. Sean McFarland, who had been a colonel in command of the Army’s First Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division in Al Anbar province from January 2006 until January 2007, credited the “growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al-Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias [which] made these younger [Sunni] leaders open to our overtures” as the main reason for the turn around in Al Anbar.
In other words, the Sunni Awakening forces began cooperating with U.S. forces in late 2006 because they believed we were leaving. The perception that we will main¬tain a large presence in Iraq indefinitely will endanger this cooperation.
The unilateral standdown of Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which began in February 2007, was also key to reducing violence. This development, like the co-option of the “Sons of Iraq” militias, was not a result of the U.S. troop build-up, nor was it instigated by the Iraqi government. It had much more to do with Sadr positioning himself for the upcoming election.
While Sadr’s power and influence have been weakened over the past year, his political movement still remains popular among many Shiites, and the cleric still possesses a military wing, the Jaish al-Mahdi, which is capable of causing problems for the government of Prime Minister Maliki and his supporters in Parliament—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa Party. Absent a timetable for withdrawal, this struggle for power can become violent again.
Surge proponents point to the marked drop in ethno-sectarian violence, in particular, as a reason for maintaining the Bush administration’s current policy. Yet this decline in violence resulted as much from the completion of ethnic and sectarian cleansing and the near homogenization of Baghdad neighborhoods as from the U.S. troop build-up.
The surge proponents’ final claim, that recent troop reductions are what President Bush calls “a return on success,” is also misguided. The surge of combat troops ended not because of conditions on the ground, but because the Pentagon could not maintain 20 brigades in Iraq and keep the current level of forces in Afghanistan without extending the tours of the surge brigades by more than 15 months.
But debating how much the escalation of 30,000 troops was responsible for the current levels of violence in Iraq is beside the point. The real issue is where do we go from here.
The reduction in violence has produced a tenuous security balance in Iraq, but it has not yet resulted in the kind of sustainable equilibrium that locks in the security and political gains that have been made in the country. Absent an incentive to truly take over their own affairs, the Iraqi government has not made satisfactory progress toward national reconciliation, nor have they implemented critical power or revenue sharing laws.
In fact, a continued large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq has allowed Iraq’s warring factions to stall on making the tough choices that they would have to make if faced with a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Provincial elections, originally scheduled for October 2008, are a case in point, as they are not likely to take place this year.
The United States can truly take advantage of what security gains have been made over the last 18 months by using a withdrawal timetable as a lever to force political change in Iraq, while pushing Iraq’s competing powers to recalculate their self-interest in light of a U.S. withdrawal. By putting the Iraqi government and its neighbors on notice that they—not the United States—will be responsible for the consequences of any instability in Iraq, the United States will give all players involved an incentive to begin acting constructively in Iraq.
President Bush and his supporters, undeterred, continue to reject setting a timetable for withdrawal. The White House justified a recent agreement that sets a vaguely worded “general time horizon for withdrawal,” by asserting that the “success” of the surge necessitates an indefinite large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq. This is the wrong course.
In order to solidify recent security gains and bring about meaningful reconciliation, the United States must move beyond the surge and begin a withdrawal of all American troops as soon as possible from Iraq. This is what the majority of the American people and the Iraqi people want.
Withdrawal will not only improve the chances of stabilizing the region; it will allow the United States to reset its entire Middle East policy. Over the past seven years, U.S. influence throughout the greater Middle East has diminished to such a degree that we are no longer liked, feared, or respected.
Read the full report (pdf)