Iraq: Time to Announce a Timetable

James B. Steinberg and
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University
Michael E. O’Hanlon

February 2, 2005

In their Jan. 25 op-ed, Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz argue against setting any American exit strategy to a calendar. That is an argument the Bush administration has, at least for now, itself endorsed. Kissinger and Shultz’s logic would be right for the Balkans, or Germany and Japan after World War II, or any nation-building effort not challenged by a strong insurgency. But such logic does not apply in Iraq, where the resistance appears to be gaining most of its growing strength from indigenous hostility to the foreign military presence.

For the Record (2/3/05)

To the Editor:

Because of an editing error, two important points in our argument of Feb. 2 were dropped [“Time to Announce a Timetable,” op-ed].

First, we believe that any remaining U.S. military presence in Iraq after mid-2006 should be deployed under new, international leadership.

For example, NATO might run the operation, once it was certified by a new U.N. Security Council resolution as well as by Congress. This approach would improve the odds that more European troops and personnel from countries such as India would participate.

Second, announcing and implementing a withdrawal plan would also make clear to the Shiites, as well as the Kurds, that the protective coalition presence should not be an excuse for avoiding steps to integrate responsible elements of the Sunni community into the government and security forces as promptly and thoroughly as possible.

On the contrary, the knowledge that the coalition was drawing down would provide a strong impetus to such a necessary political engagement to broaden the base of the government’s support. This would help avoid the danger of “unchecked” Shiite majoritarianism that Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz’s Jan. 25 column so rightly warned against without depending, as they do, on U.S. political “leverage,” which in all likelihood would prove counterproductive to our goals.

No exit strategy for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq should be abrupt or radical. We must not cut and run. We should not plan to withdraw our forces entirely by any set date. And we should announce a schedule for partial withdrawal only in conjunction with the new Iraqi government being formed. But the case for a fairly prompt major reduction in foreign forces, announced publicly and set to a schedule, increasingly appears to be the best way to help produce a stable Iraq under a government accepted as legitimate by most of its people.

Admittedly, foreign military forces are still a necessary part of the solution in Iraq. Without them the country would probably wind up in civil war. The likely results would be ethnic cleansing, a sanctuary for terrorists and a mockery of the U.S. claim that it overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in part to liberate the Iraqi people.

But U.S.-led coalition forces have also become part of the problem. It is now inescapable that they are helping fuel the insurgency. While measuring the size of any guerrilla movement is always difficult, the best estimates are that the resistance has grown over the past year from some 5,000 hard-core fighters to 20,000, despite U.S. forces having arrested or killed 15,000 enemy fighters.

To be sure, part of that strengthening resistance is made up of Baathists who will continue to oppose any representative Iraqi government even if most U.S. forces are withdrawn. But it’s hard to believe that the numbers of such dead-enders have been growing much. And, yes, there are foreign jihadists. But the latter group appears to number no more than 1,000 to 3,000 people.

Most of the growth in the insurgency, it appears, has come from a third group: Sunni Arab Iraqis who were “fence-sitters” in the early months after Hussein fell. They now seem motivated primarily by anger at foreign forces, which they perceive as occupiers caring little about the well-being of Iraqis, instead wishing only to exploit Iraq’s oil or use its territory as a springboard for further hegemonic activities. In addition to those taking up arms, large percentages of Iraqis are sufficiently angry at the United States that they are not providing the kind of human intelligence needed to defeat the perpetrators of violence.

Sunday’s historic elections, despite their many virtues, are unlikely to change these dynamics among the Sunni Arab population in particular. Even many Shiites celebrated the elections as a further step toward reclaiming their country. Thus, developing a withdrawal schedule would not run counter to the message of the elections but would build on that positive message. It would also remind the Shiites, as well as the Kurds, of the need to integrate Sunnis into the government and security forces.

The perception of coalition forces as latter-day imperialists is, of course, fundamentally unfair and wrong. But it is widespread. With Iraqi unemployment stuck in the 30 to 40 percent range, most infrastructure performing no better than under Hussein, and crime rates apparently several times what they were during the later years of his rule, many Iraqi realities are working against us too.

The above assessment suggests that Washington and Baghdad would actually improve their prospects for defeating the insurgency and stabilizing the country by publicly announcing a plan for gradual but substantial coalition troop withdrawal. We should commit to redefining the mission mandate for foreign forces, reducing their role as much as possible after a new Iraqi constitution is ratified and a more permanent government is elected in late 2005. And we should aim to have two-thirds to three-quarters of our forces out of Iraq by mid-2006.

This timeline would also allow Iraqi security forces ample time to complete training and get on-the-job experience. After the drawdown, remaining coalition forces might number 30,000 to 50,000, conducting training and providing quick-reaction capability to back up Iraqi security forces. This should be enough to prevent the worst-case outcomes of a return to power by Baathists or other extremists, or a chaotic situation in which al Qaeda could find refuge.

There are clearly risks in this strategy. But a central fact about Iraq today is that no strategy is risk-free. Even if we can stomach the casualties and the costs, there is no guarantee that indefinite continuation of the current mission will produce victory. Rather than reinforce failure, we need to find a new approach.