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Best Course of Action in Iraq is to Leave

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
By Tom Maertens

The Bush administration is facing a major dilemma in Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel expressed it unambiguously: "The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."

The United States doesn't have enough troops on the ground to suppress the insurgency and has no real prospect of getting enough troops. No allies are about to commit more forces to this quagmire, and the U.S. military is stretched so badly that, as Gen. Barry McCaffrey expressed it, the wheels are coming off.

A draft could provide more troops, but that is only a theoretical possibility. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans believes that invading Iraq was a mistake and that more than half the people no longer trust this president. Any serious effort to revive the draft would meet with a firestorm of opposition.

When you are losing the war, your army is disintegrating and public support is evaporating, then the only remaining option is withdrawal.

Bush has rejected any withdrawal timetable, but he no longer has the option of escalating the war. The alternative is a bloody status quo for an outcome that will inevitably be a semi-democratic, Islamic state aligned with Iran. Or, his advisers may persuade him of the advantages of an early withdrawal that can be portrayed as voluntary rather than an ignominious one.

Bush claims we can't cut and run, but he seems oblivious to the fact that the American occupation is a central cause of the violence. Besides religious sectarianism, the motivations common to Iraqi insurgents are nationalism and anti-Americanism, good reason to get U.S. troops out.

The foreign jihadists, who are responsible for almost all of the suicide bombings in Iraq, are a different story. Two studies, conducted separately by Saudis and Israelis, confirm that most foreign fighters entering Iraq had no previous history of jihad. One of the studies interviewed more than 300 captured infiltrators and found that they had entered Iraq specifically to oppose the U.S. occupation. In other words, we have created an international terrorist factory where none existed. Take out the American troops, and the foreign jihadists quit infiltrating Iraq and most suicide bombings stop, another reason for removing the troops.

The best opportunity to "declare victory and leave" will come after the December elections. The United States should begin withdrawing troops following the elections, to be completed within 12 months. The first step, however, is to stop the construction of permanent U.S. bases immediately, a cause for extreme suspicion among Iraqis.

In the 12 months after the elections, U.S. troops should maintain security for the new government in the Baghdad Green Zone and for the petroleum infrastructure but should not conduct counterinsurgency operations, as they did at Fallujah and elsewhere. Those operations are costly and counterproductive. Instead, all policing and counterinsurgency activity would be assumed by Iraqi troops and police as they become ready. The United States and other countries would train Iraq security forces during this period.

A new constitution and the national elections scheduled for December may facilitate political accommodation ... if the majority Shiites agree to give the Sunnis a percentage of the oil revenue. (Eighty percent of the known oil reserves are in the Shia south and most of the rest is in areas claimed by the Kurds.)

As for the Kurds, they may agree to nominal participation in a federal arrangement, but will continue on their course toward de facto independence.

An important element of any exit strategy is internal negotiations to stop the insurgency. One mediation effort is already underway by a former minister in the Iraqi interim government, Aiham Alsammarae, who reportedly is talking with 11 insurgent groups. Other Iraqi civil or religious leaders, the United Nations, the Arab League or the Islamic Conference could facilitate compromise and accommodation.

Once U.S. troops have withdrawn, other countries -- particularly Islamic countries -- or the U.N. might be persuaded to provide peacekeepers for an interim period. That would be a hard sell, but without the threat of a long-term American occupation facing them, Iraqi insurgents might be more willing to lay down their guns and enter the political process.

Some Iraqis will oppose any compromise, and low-level violence will likely continue well into the future, but the prospects for Iraqis solving their differences through negotiation improve once the foreign occupation ends.

Since it is clear that we can't resolve Iraq's ethnic and religious tensions and are exacerbating nationalist and anti-American sentiments, the best course of action is to leave as soon as possible.


Tom Maertens, now retired and living in Minnesota, served on the White House NSC staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.


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