Like Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) and retired Army Lieutenant General William Odom, the former director of the National Security Agency, Barry Posen is right when he says that the United States must withdraw its military forces from Iraq. The reasons that they give are similar; the three plans differ only in the specific timetable for withdrawal. Murtha and Odom want us to get out as soon as possible, which Murtha indicates should be in about six months. Posen favors an 18-month time frame. But taking out our troops in 24 months would give us a better chance of safeguarding American interests in the region. We all agree that the United States should retain a presence in the region to manage threats to American security. Posen sees the greatest threat as conventional aggression. American power should also be used against any foreign terrorist camps or enclaves that emerge. While we need to ensure that Iraq is not invaded by Iran or Turkey, we must also ensure that Iraq does not become another Afghanistan.
Posen would keep American forces over the horizon, presumably Marines on Navy ships, and have the Special Operations Command retain relationships with their Iraqi counterparts. We would go further. Like Murtha, we would leave quick-reaction ground troops in the region. (Our preference would be Kuwait.) Moreover, we would keep a small group of Special Operations forces on the ground in Iraq to work closely with Iraqi forces to combat homegrown and foreign insurgents.
Redeploying our forces from Iraq will be only part of the withdrawal strategy. As Posen correctly points out, the diplomacy of disengagement is also critical. He would have the United States remind others in the region of its enduring interests in the Persian Gulf. We would also remind these countries of our common interest in a stable Iraq and launch a diplomatic initiative to create a cooperative security network aimed at securing Iraq’s borders and taking down terrorist networks. Since 77 percent of region’s population believe that the war has made the Iraqis worse off, they will likely support withdrawal and work with us to prevent the situation in Iraq from deteriorating to such an extent that it destabilizes the region.
While we disagree on the details of how to implement what we call strategic redeployment—a policy Bush and his supporters caricature as cut and run—we agree on the main justifications: as our military commanders in the region note, the war cannot be won militarily, and the continued presence of large numbers of American troops in Iraq is making the insurgency worse and undermining American security. As Murtha put it so plainly, “Continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people, or the Persian Gulf region.”
Setting a timetable for American disengagement is also in the interest of the Iraqi people. As long as Iraqi leaders feel that the United States will remain there in large numbers indefinitely, they will have no incentive to get their acts together. Posen notes that they will not be motivated to make the painful political compromises necessary to create a unified Iraq, nor will Iraq’s security forces grow in capability as long as they expect U.S. forces to bail them out. The issue with the Iraqi security forces is no longer training; it is motivation. As Senator John Warner (R-VA), the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, noted during the recent Senate debate on withdrawal, “We have done our share. Now the challenge is up to you [the Iraqi people].” Moreover, our prolonged heavy involvement in Iraq is damaging our overall security. Odom calls it the greatest strategic disaster in American history. Posen notes that U.S. military power has other roles to play. We believe that the United States needs to send 20,000 troops that would have been deployed to Iraq to Afghanistan to stabilize that country. We agree with Murtha that the prolonged occupation is damaging our ground forces, particularly the all-volunteer Army.
Critics argue that an American withdrawal might precipitate a civil war, that Iraq could become a haven for terrorists, and that setting a timetable will only encourage the terrorists to wait us out. While we cannot know for certain what will happen when we leave, announcing a timetable will likely lessen the chances of these doomsday scenarios coming to pass. More than 80 percent of Iraqis want us to leave, and nearly half of Iraqis believe it is acceptable to kill American troops. Therefore, when the United States announces a specific timetable for withdrawal, support for the insurgents—particularly those from other countries—will diminish. And as we all agree, what Posen calls a muted civil war has already started. The presence of U.S. forces in the region, plus our diplomatic initiative, would prevent Iraq from becoming the victim of either conventional or unconventional attacks.
The Bush administration’s numerous mistakes—sending too few troops, failing to provide them with proper guidance and equipment, and frequently changing the strategy for Iraq’s political transition and reconstruction—have left us with no good options. Posen may be right when he says that disengagement will most likely result in a stalemate. While that may be less than a perfect outcome, it is far better than the disaster that awaits us if we stay the course.
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Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Brian Katulis is the director of democracy and public diplomacy on the national-security team at the Center for American Progress.