Withdrawal: Why Wait?

With the change in party control in Congress and with the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by Bush 41 Secretary of State (and all-around fixer) James Baker, most Americans expect at least a course correction in the Iraq war, if not necessarily the beginning of substantial troop withdrawals. Unfortunately, the debate has already become constricted, with a prompt withdrawal followed by an agonizing reassessment of the U.S. foreign policy that made the war politically possible pretty much off the table.

If only to expand the range of possibilities, it is important to make a forceful case for immediate withdrawal. American policies tend to be compromises rather than those informed by first principles, as is perhaps inevitable in a purportedly democratic political system. If immediate withdrawal is not part of the conversation, the eventual policy is almost certain to involve leaving U.S. troops in Iraq to be targets of insurgents and jihadists longer than would be the case if the range of “acceptable” alternative were wider.

The Center for Security and International Studies has published a reasonably objective summary of the options currently under consideration, as follows:

  • The present policy, as outlined in a White House document last November, is to focus on training Iraqi security forces, of which there are said to be 280,000 now, so the U.S. military can “stand down.” The shorthand is “Clear, Hold, Build.” On October 24 Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, refined that somewhat by noting that the Iraqi government has agreed to a timetable for creating a “national compact” involving disarming militias, sharing oil revenues and holding provincial elections.

  • Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign relations, have argued for the creation of three formally semi-autonomous regions (Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurd) with Baghdad as a “federal” city and a central government handling defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Sen. John McCain (recently joined by retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni) has called for deploying more troops, perhaps for six months or so, to suppress the insurgency and then turn things over to the Iraqis.

  • Former Reagan-era defense official Lawrence Korb advocates “strategic redeployment,” which means not replacing U.S. troops when their tours of duty end, but leaving an Army division in Kuwait and Marines in the Persian Gulf, ready to intervene if things get too chaotic. Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha has advocated beginning withdrawal immediately, but has also called for leaving quick-reaction troops in the area.

  • Former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wants the U.S. to quietly request Iraqi leaders to ask the U.S. publicly to leave, then start negotiations that would include a regional conference. Defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich wants the U.S. military to focus on embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi units noting that only 4,000 of the 140,000 troops now live, train and fight with Iraqi units.

None of these proposal envisions immediate withdrawal, let alone a policy going forward of refraining from unnecessary U.S. intervention into the affairs of other countries. What is striking about this is that those who advocate each of them – at least the more intelligent or honest among them – must admit that they do not know how their recommended policies would turn out if implemented. Each of them is a calculated risk, subject to a dizzyingly complex set of circumstances on the ground and no way to predict how various forces involved in the situation would respond to them.

To be honest, much the same can be said of the prompt-withdrawal option. Most “respectable” analysts predict that it would lead to more widespread chaos and violence than exists in Iraq now. But that is hardly a certainty.

It is almost certain, however, that the worst-case scenario spun by the War Party is extremely unlikely. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, among others, have predicted that if the U.S. were to withdraw too soon, or even set a timetable for withdrawal, not only would the United States be seen as having lost, but that Iraq would become a safe haven for international terrorists who could use the country as a springboard for more attacks within the United States.

This is extremely unlikely. It would probably be a mistake to place full credence in assessments coming from the U.S. intelligence “community” – its members are quick to acknowledge that they don’t have sufficient information, especially not from actual people on the ground, or “humint.” But CIA director Michael Hayden, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, estimated that there are roughly 1,300 al-Qaeda and foreign terrorists operating in Iraq, while putting the number of insurgents in the “low tens of thousands.”

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples of the Defense_Intelligence_Agency, wouldn’t be pinned down on the number of foreign fighters. But he estimated the number of insurgents (including sectarian militias) at 20,000 to 30,000, with many, many more providing support of various forms.

Hayden’s estimate may be a lowball – it probably is – but it is strikingly small. How likely is it that 1,300 people could take over a country of about 24 million and dictate that it provide safe havens for terrorist attacks overseas that would almost certainly provoke reprisals or even new military actions – remember Afghanistan? – against the host country? It could even be that the Iraqi insurgents/militias would wipe out the foreign fighters, probably more effectively (and brutally) than American forces would. How many of those foreign fighters would leave once the Americans, a primary target, had left?

Hayden and Maples also stressed in their testimony that the violence in Iraq is becoming increasingly complex. Among those Hayden said were perpetrating violence were “Iraqi nationalists, ex-Ba’athists, former military, angry Sunni, Jihadists, foreign fighters and al-Qaeda.” He added that “Shia militias and Shia militants, some Kurdish pesh merga, and extensive criminal activity further contribute to violence, instability and insecurity.”

The notion that such a complex situation could be handled mainly by the U.S. military, even a seriously beefed-up U.S. military (which may be logistically close to impossible) seems the stuff of pipedreams.

On the other hand, the most recent U.S. intelligence – at least that which has been made available to the public – suggests that an early withdrawal from Iraq by the U.S. military could turn out to be something of a coup in terms of weakening al-Qaeda and other jihadists. A December 11, 2005 letter, found by U.S. authorities at the time of the death of the late leader of “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in July of this year, expressed fear (as translated by the U.S. Army’s Combating Terrorism Center in West Point) that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would harm al-Qaeda.

“The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day,” wrote a purported senior al-Qaeda leader known as “Atiyah.” “Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.”

The letter also stressed the al-Qaeda’s vulnerability. “Know that we, like all mujahiddin, are still weak. We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but not to squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.”

Now this may have been disinformation intended to deceive Americans or anti-jihadist Iraqis into underestimating al-Qaeda’s strength. Or it may have been a diplomatic way to turn down a request for material help from Zarqawi. But the latest intelligence we laypeople know about suggest that al-Qaeda considers an extended war to be in its best interests, fed by the belief that an American withdrawal would lead to some foreign fighters simply returning to their home countries and those that remained being targeted by indigenous Iraqi forces rather than having time to put down roots and become more battle-hardened.

This fits with another letter to Zarqawi, from Ayman al-Zawahiri, generally believed to by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, believed to have been sent in July 2005. Besides advising Zarqawi to stop killing so many Muslims, it advised that “The mujahiddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons and silence the fighting zeal.” If such an unfortunate event were to occur, Zawahiri advises talking up the “idea” of a “caliphate” – not the worldwide caliphate the Bushlet claims to see as inevitable if we so much as set a timetable, but simply along the eastern Mediterranean.

Knowledge that the U.S. was leaving might concentrate the attention of Iraqi leaders to the point of getting serious about governance and security, removing a crutch that permits all factions to pursue short-term goals rather than thinking about a modus vivendi for the longer run. To be sure, it is quite possible that if U.S. forces were to begin withdrawal tomorrow the result would be increased chaos and violence, at least for a while. But it would also eliminate an irritant in Iraq and the world over that U.S. intelligence analysts believe has been a “cause celebre” that has increased Islamic radicalism worldwide.

My crystal ball is no more reliable than those consulted by Baker, McCain, Kristol, Brezinski, Biden, Korb or Krepinevich. But the notion that withdrawing as quickly as possible is the worst possible option is far from having been proven, and there’s a plausible case that it’s the best available option. It should be on the table as we reconsider our country’s course in Iraq.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange
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. He is the author of Ambush
at Ruby Ridge
(Putnam-Berkley, 1995).