Five Myths About the Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

August 22, 2010

Early Thursday, less than two weeks before the president’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending American combat operations in Iraq, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait. With the departure of

this last combat brigade,

the U.S. military presence in Iraq is now down to 50,000 troops, fewer than at any time since the 2003 invasion. The shift offers a useful moment to take stock of both how much has been accomplished and how much is left to be done in what is fast becoming our forgotten war.

As of this month, the United States no longer has combat troops in Iraq.

1. Not even close. Of the roughly 50,000 American military personnel who remain in Iraq, the majority are still combat troops — they’re just named something else. The major units still in Iraq will no longer be called “brigade combat teams” and instead will be called “advisory and assistance brigades.” But a rose by any other name is still a rose, and the differences in brigade structure and personnel are minimal.

American troops in Iraq will still go into harm’s way. They will still accompany Iraqi units on combat missions — even if only as “advisers.” American pilots will still fly combat missions in support of Iraqi ground forces. And American special forces will still face off against Iraqi terrorist groups in high-intensity operations. For that reason, when American troops leave their bases in Iraq, they will still, almost invariably, be in full “battle rattle” and ready for a fight.

What has changed over the past 12 to 18 months is the level of violence in Iraq. There is much less of it: The civil war and the insurgency have been suppressed and the terrorists have been marginalized, so American troops have been able to pass the majority of their remaining combat responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces. Most U.S. troops now have little expectation of seeing combat in Iraq. Instead, they are spending more time acting as peacekeepers, protecting personnel and facilities, and advising Iraqi formations. But that didn’t start this month: It’s more or less what they have been doing since the “clear and hold” operations to take back the country from militias and insurgents ended in 2008.

Thanks to the troop “surge,” Iraq is secure enough that it will not fall back into civil war as U.S. forces pull out.

2. Security in Iraq has improved enormously since the darkest days of 2005-2006, but the jury is still out on what will happen in the months and years ahead.

Extensive research on intercommunal civil wars — wars like Iraq’s, in which a breakdown in governance prompts different communities to fight one another for power — finds a dangerous propensity toward recidivism. Moreover, the fear, anger, greed and desire for revenge that helped propel Iraq into civil war in the first place remain just beneath the surface.

Academic studies of scores of civil wars from the past century show that roughly 50 percent of the time, war will recur within five years of a cease-fire. If the country has major “lootable” resources such as gold, diamonds or oil, the odds climb higher still. The important bright spot, however, is that if a great power is willing to make a long-term commitment to serving as peacekeeper and mediator (the role the United States is playing in Iraq today), the recidivism rate drops to less than one in three. This is why an ongoing American commitment to Iraq is so important.

It’s also worth pointing out that a civil war doesn’t recur because the public desires one. Most people recognize that civil war is a disaster. Instead, such wars flare up again because leaders still believe they can achieve their objectives by force. Until they are convinced otherwise — ideally, by a great power’s military forces — they will revert to fighting.

The United States is leaving behind a broken political system.

3. If some on the right want to claim (incorrectly) that the surge stabilized Iraq to the point that civil war is impossible, their counterparts on the left try to insist (equally incorrectly) that the change in U.S. tactics and strategy in 2007-2008 had no impact on Iraq’s politics whatsoever.

Partisans will debate the impact of the surge for years to come, and historians will take up the fight thereafter. However, Iraqi politics are fundamentally different today than they were in 2006. The nation’s political leaders have been forced to embrace democracy — in many cases very grudgingly, but embrace it they have. Party leaders no longer scheme to kill their rivals, but to outvote them. They can no longer intimidate voters; they have to persuade them. And the smart ones have figured out that they must deliver what their constituents want, namely, effective governance, jobs, and services such as electricity and clean water.

Yes, Iraqi politics remain deadlocked and deeply dysfunctional, and yes, long-term stability and short-term economic needs depend on further political progress. But it is now possible to imagine Iraq muddling on toward real peace, pluralism and even prosperity — if it gets the right breaks and a fair amount of continuing help from the United States, the United Nations and its neighbors.

Iraqis want U.S. troops to stay. Or they want them leave.

4. Be very, very careful with Iraqi public opinion. Polls are rarely subtle enough to capture the complexity of Iraqi views. Typically, they show a small number of Iraqis who want the Americans out immediately at any cost, a small number who want them to stay forever and a vast majority in the middle — determined that U.S. troops should leave, but only after a certain period of time. When Iraqis are asked how long they believe our troops are needed, their answers range from a few months to a few years, but are strongly linked to however long the respondent believes it will take Iraq’s forces to be able to handle security on their own.

One typically hears the same from people across Iraq and throughout its social and political strata. Iraqis are nationalistic, and they resent the American military presence. Many are also bitter over the mess that the United States made by invading and then failing to secure the country or to begin a comprehensive rebuilding process, failures that led to civil war in 2005-2006. Most Iraqis are relieved to have been rescued from that descent and are frightened that it will resume when the Americans leave. This is because their security forces are still untested and their political process has yet to show the kind of maturity that would provide Iraqis confidence that they are safe from the threat of more civil war. Consequently, a great many people are both determined to see all American troops leave — and terrified that they actually will.

The war will end “on schedule.”

5. Much as we should want the Obama administration to succeed in Iraq, this statement by the president in a speech to veterans this month should make us wary. If uttered in the first act of a Greek tragedy, it is exactly the kind of claim that would end in a Sophoclean fall.

As George W. Bush learned to his dismay, once you start a war, a lot of bad, unpredictable things can happen. No war has ever gone precisely according to schedule, not even those that have ended in the most dramatic victories, such as Israel’s Six-Day War or the Persian Gulf War. What’s more, war’s aftereffects linger for many years.

Going forward, America’s involvement in Iraq can (and hopefully will ) be much reduced, but the need for a U.S. presence will endure for many years. Iraq has demonstrated great potential, but at this point it is only potential. The country still holds great peril as well — not just for Iraqis, but for our interests in one of the world’s most strategically important regions.

For these reasons, Obama was right to also warn that the United States will need to remain deeply involved in Iraq and will probably face casualties there in the years to come, regardless of how we label our mission.