Like a Mirage in the Desert: U.S. exit from Iraq may recede into the time horizon
by Charles Knight
Key advisors to Barack Obama have put forward an Iraq withdrawal policy which they have labeled "conditional engagement." In their words:
"Under this strategy, the...time horizon for redeployment would be negotiated with the Iraqi government and nested within a more assertive approach to regional diplomacy. The United States would make clear that Iraq and America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi government and build its security and governance capacity over the long-term, but only so long as Iraqis continue to make meaningful political progress." [from Colin Kahl, Michele A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, "Shaping the Iraq Inheritance ", Center for a New American Security, June 2008.]
This policy may as well be called "conditional withdrawal" because the degree and speed of withdrawal is related directly to "conditions" of progress that are largely dependent on the cooperation of Iraqis and on continuing intrusive military activity by the US. Such conditionality of withdrawal makes this centrist Democratic policy approach much closer than many realize to the Republican position of "staying until victory." In this case victory is defined as "sustainable stability."
The goal of stable, secure, well-governed, and prosperous Iraq is a worthy one, especially for Iraqis. It is the work of decades, not years. It is principally a political job and it is principally the job of Iraqis. We must get over the notion that stabilizing Iraq is something for the US to do; that it is something the US can do. US troops have in effect been destabilizing Iraq since the invasion and Iraq can only move so far toward re-stabilizing as long as US troops remain in that country.
Nevertheless, Iraqis will continue to need substantial international support. Since US intervention is a contributing factor to Iraqi national problems, effective outside help will have to move through international agency, not bilateral arrangements or narrow multi-lateral arrangements dominated by Western nations. Support dominated by the US will continue to get in the way of progress. Therefore any strategy that involves staying militarily in order to achieve stability is in fatal tension with itself. It is easy to see how such a strategy will keep US armed forces in Iraq for decades to come.
Looking at the details of the conditional engagement policy proposal, one finds structures of dependency that have no end point. For instance, the Center for a New American Security report  suggests that the US will need to manage the Sons of Iraq formations the US has been supporting by "preventing them from acquiring heavy weapons, tightly restricting their jurisdictions and movement, and closely monitoring them for compliance so that they do not rub up against rival militias." Such a level of control over native forces is more typical of a colonial power, and certainly not a reasonable mission for an army that is planning to leave anytime soon. Embrace that sort of mission and you will be there for a very long time.
If Barack Obama is elected President it is likely that his defense and foreign policy team will include a significant number of centrists who will want to pursue sustainable stability in Iraq with continued application of US military power. Such is the composition of the Democratic national security establishment in Washington. There are also other advisors who believe that the Iraq war is a turning point for a US middle east policy that needs significant revision and renovation. If Obama is inclined toward the centrists and follows their advice he is likely to face considerable frustration in meeting his goal of ending the war in Iraq. Sooner or later he will turn his attention to other options. It is well worth the effort in the meantime to develop those options.
I was one of the organizers of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq . We have published a set of 25 initiatives that complement and support a short timeline military withdrawal. We call for getting all the troops out within eighteen months while also remaining responsibly engaged by non-military means in Iraq and the region. We would disengage from failed policies of the past -- policies based on strategic error and that have led us into a strategic disaster.
Military occupation of Iraq is the central feature of this strategic error. No amount of clever adjustment at the tactical and operational levels will get us where we need to be. Only strategic change can get us on the road to recovery.
Three fundamental strategic errors have been made:
- First, the US miscalculated what might be accomplished by force of arms and failed to appreciate the limits on the utility of military power;
- Second, our leaders in Washington failed to appreciate the power and dynamics of identity politics... and the likely reaction to foreign occupation.
- Third, the US failed to take seriously the importance of international cooperation and legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
The price the US and others are paying for these blunders is not measured in blood and treasure alone -- although these costs are already terribly high. One example of these extraordinary costs we have addressed in the Task Force report:
There are now millions of refugees and millions of internally displaced persons, totaling nearly 15% of the Iraq population. The displacement of a proportional number of Americans would mean: 45 million forced from their homes, the equivalent of emptying out the population of America's ten largest cities. This happened under the American watch in Iraq. It is an immense failure for an occupying power; one still receiving the most 'care less' of responses from Washington.
In addition the US has:
- weakened and misdirected its security assets -- since 2004 the Army has been at an unsustainable operational tempo with accumulating harm to that service;
- severely damaged its reputation, especially in the Muslim world;
- damaged its alliances;
- created a catalyst for communal conflict and provided a recruiting gift to Iraqi extremists;
- provided a motivator for jihadism and for terrorist tactics worldwide;
- handed Iran strategic and economic benefits which accrue every day US troops remain in Iraq;
- tarnished the meaning and the promise of democracy -- and undermined efforts to promote it.
Moving from the level of strategy to consider US operational policy in Iraq, it becomes clear that we must proceed on an entirely new basis -- one that puts the Iraqis at the center and that gathers the international community to our side as equal partners in supporting reconciliation and recovery for this traumatized society.
The "new basis" necessarily begins with setting a credible -- meaning short -- timeline for withdrawal. This, because:
- Withdrawal is essential to drawing the remaining "rejectionists", Sunni and Shia alike, into the political process;
- Withdrawal is essential to further reducing the appeal of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia;
- Withdrawal is essential to restoring the credibility of the Iraqi government as sovereign and as a leader of an inclusion and reconciliation process, and;
- Withdrawal is essential to unblocking international cooperation -- especially that of key contact states -- who can do more to help stabilize Iraq.
Only some of the benefits of setting a credible withdrawal timeline will materialize simply by announcing the withdrawal. In addition it will take effective diplomacy and considerable resources, before and after, to draw the rejectionists in and catalyze international cooperation and support. Much of this is specified in the Task Force Report .
The "new basis" of policy implies a new realism about what the US can hope to accomplish in Iraq and how. It means finally coming to terms with a number of uncomfortable facts:
- American military presence and action has been part of the problem....It is an affront to Iraqi national and communal identities. And a stimulant to rejectionism and insurgency and violence;
- From the start, the US has been handicapped by being an alien power in Iraq. It means US troops are judged by a different standard. And it tars everyone who works with the US...it makes suspect every process the US presumes to lead.
- US "moral authority"... the ability to truly win "hearts and minds" in sufficient numbers has been undercut by too much firepower and too many house raids, checkpoint killings, road rams, jailings, and varied abuses of power. (Others may have done much worse, but that doesn't matter. The US in Iraq is judged differently because it is an alien presence in Iraqi culture.)
- US authority is also undercut because US troops and contractors wear their privilege and self-interest on their sleeves. It's evident in the US insistence of immunity for its nationals and in the details of basing agreements and oil deals the US tries to cut.
So we shouldn't be surprised, when opinion polls find that very few Iraqis think the US is doing a good job in their country. Nor should we be surprised when focus groups conducted for the coalition military command find, as the Washington Post reports  that "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of 'occupying forces' as the key to national reconciliation." Sentiments like these contribute to Maliki's recent push back on basing agreements and to his support of a withdrawal timeline.
The surge has brought down the level of violence...and today the level of violence in Iraq is comparable, proportionately, to the worst years of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. It is a very good thing that fewer are dying in Iraq, but that improvement alone is far from sufficient evidence from which to conclude that US policy is now on the right track.
And how did the reduction in violence come about? Not principally by the application of increased US military power or by adopting new counter-insurgency doctrine, but by accommodating and supporting the desire of Sunnis for local control and by "coming to terms" with Moqtada al-Sadr and by his decision, encouraged by Iran, to stand-down his armed contest with the Badr brigades.
As we assess the so-called "surge strategy," it is important to note its limits:
- The surge has reduced violence by leveraging and reinforcing the inter-communal and intra-communal divisions that plague Iraq -- think of the walls American soldiers have built to separate Sunni and Shia enclaves in Baghdad; And,
- The fact remains that none of the powerful Iraqi groups or leaders with whom the US is currently allied share the American vision or purpose -- not even the Kurds. US alliances inside Iraq are marriages of convenience -- and shaky ones at that.
Indeed, the surge marks the limit of what the United States might accomplish in Iraq by military means. Now the task is to bring into the political process most of the remaining rejectionists and to catalyze the type of international support that will facilitate this inclusion and a national accord. And this requires US military withdrawal.
Some proponents of staying warn us about backsliding if the US leaves, including the specter of a failed state wherein al Qaeda will thrive. This warning displays a basic misunderstanding of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia which was founded as a reaction to the US invasion. When the US leaves Iraq it looses its primary motivation for its adherents and rather than thrive, it is very likely to fade.
In addition, political instability does not equal a failed state -- there are many ways of avoiding that outcome that do not involve keeping US troops there indefinitely. Iraq is a traumatized society and that condition is a major contributing factor to why Iraq will be politically volatile for a long time to come. But seeking to shape or control Iraqi politics with Army brigades is to perpetuate the use of a blunt and inappropriate tool that does at least as much harm as it does good. Staying means staying for a very long time!
US presence is one cause of the violence – its troops will always be seen as a foreign invader to be resisted.
If it is strategically important to leave, we must understand that it is an illusion to think we'll just linger a while longer to fix things up in Iraq before we leave. As long as the US stays in Iraq the goal of national reconciliation will recede into the time horizon like a mirage in the desert.
Adapted from a panel presentation on The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq  at the United States Institute of Peace, 25 July 2008. The panel consisted of Kimberly Kagan, Colin Kahl, Charles Knight, and Rend al-Rahim, with Daniel Serwer, moderator. Charles Knight is the co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives .