Leaving Iraq: A How-To

Challenged in a recent press conference on his strategy to “win” the Iraq War, President Bush defiantly stated, “If I didn’t think it would work, I would change.” Instead of “staying the course” and bad-mouthing critics by comparing them to those who sought to appease the Nazis before World War II, Bush should be seeking new and creative ways to stop the utter destruction of Iraq and the constant loss of our soldiers.

There are plenty of proposals that call for a change in direction and are far more nuanced than the “cut-and-run” label the president bestows upon them.

The two alternatives that have been fleshed out most deeply are “strategic redeployment” and plans for partition. Almost a year ago Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., put forth a plan for strategic redeployment that called for positioning U.S. troops in neighboring countries while leaving a core component behind for training Iraqi troops. The five-point plan of Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., calling for a virtual partition of Iraq has its roots in proposals made by Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador with a long involvement in policy on Iraq, and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. They were discussing back in late 2003 breaking Iraq up into three pieces defined by ethnic and religious identity.

Both of these plans have merits. Murtha’s plan for rapidly redeploying U.S. troops would remove the major target for resistance attacks and help the Iraqi government gain legitimacy as U.S. government advisors left the scene. Biden’s plan includes measures for a massive reconstruction plan to provide employment for Iraqi citizens and a regional nonaggression pact. These measures would draw in Iraq’s neighbors who are desperately needed for a long-term solution.

But Murtha falls short in addressing the likely security void that would be left behind while Biden’s plan of partition already exists with a disastrous effect, with the central government in charge of Baghdad and regional actors in charge of other parts of the country. Biden points to Bosnia as a success case to emulate but there are equally strong examples of partitions that have resulted in long-term conflicts such as Israel/Palestine or the partition of India. Dividing up the country also increases the potential for greater conflict with Iraq’s neighbors as each would be competing for greater influence and power.

A better alternative would draw on the strengths of these proposals while seeking ways to reduce the chance of civil war and a breakup of the country. Instead of “cutting and running,” these five steps outline what a responsible redeployment would look like.

First: End U.S. offensive operations. U.S. offensives, much like Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, only radicalizes the opposition, provides them with a stronger recruiting base, and fails to protect those suffering from the growing sectarian violence.

Second: Adopt Biden’s proposal for a regional conference to produce a regional nonaggression pact. Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia hold the key’s to Iraq’s future. Individually and collectively they all have strong interests in keeping Iraq a stable and unified nation.

Third: Provide economic and political incentives to unify instead of divide the country. The Iraqi government should be given control of the remaining reconstruction funds to help stem local unemployment while providing the central government a truly national project. The U.S. should commit new funds and pressure the international community to make good on their previous pledges. On the political front, the U.S. should fully support Iraq’s peace and reconciliation plan and pledge not to interfere in its deliberations over amnesty.

Fourth: The U.S. and Iraq must work together to demobilize the militias and insurgents. U.S. training of Iraqi troops has focused too much on the training and not enough on ensuring that trainees do not become allied with militias. Any Iraqi military or police units found to have ties to militias should be immediately demobilized. Iraqi political parties that have ties to militias must pledge to stop offensive operations and set forth a plan to integrate their troops into the national security forces.

Fifth: Follow Murtha’s plan for strategic redeployment by moving a limited number of U.S. troops to regional allies while bringing the rest of the troops home in the next six to 12 months.

While there are many different opinions about how long withdrawal should take, there is strong support for the idea both in Iraq and in the U.S. Recent polls indicate that 87 percent of all Iraqis and 60 percent of U.S. citizens favor a withdrawal timeline.

More and more politicians are coming around to support the idea, including growing numbers of war supporters who are now calling for withdrawal. Recently Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said, “The administration wants an open-ended commitment and that sends a wrong message to the Iraqis.” The defection of Republicans from Bush’s stay-the-course mentality is a strong indicator that motives for withdrawal are not political; they are aimed at pursuing a better policy.

Bush’s Iraq War strategy has proven to be too costly in human and financial terms, both to the Iraqi people and U.S. troops. But more importantly, it isn’t working. Instead of casting critics as defeatists, he would be wise to start looking at the alternatives. Unless we change course, at current rates another 2,000 U.S. solders will die by Bush’s last day in office and the quagmire will only be deeper. It’s time for a change.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project.