The Iraq War: Departure Does Not Mean Defeat

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 23, 2005

A debate has begun in recent weeks over whether the US should work with Iraqis to develop a plan for gradual withdrawal of the foreign military coalition from Iraq.

Critics of the exit strategy concept, starting with George W. Bush himself, argue it would embolden the resistance and discourage Iraqis who are trying to rebuild their country. They point to generally successful stabilisation missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, as well as to postwar Germany and Japan, where the US stayed a half-decade or longer as circumstances dictated. An exit strategy, such critics argue, is tantamount to defeatism.

It is true that some proponents of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq opposed the war from the outset. For them, withdrawal would be simply a US-led effort to cut losses. But for those of us who believed that Saddam Hussein’s non-compliance with his United Nations obligations justified forceful action, even as we criticised the diplomacy preceding the invasion and the post-invasion stabilisation effort, a sound strategy for reducing US presence is the way to ensure success. This is because, while US-led foreign forces are a necessary part of the solution in Iraq today, they are also part of the problem. The perception is widespread in Iraq, especially among Sunni Arab populations at the core of the insurgency, that US forces are there to settle scores with an old enemy, seize cheap oil, develop military bases as springboards for further regional activity and generally act like colonial powers of old. These perceptions, while wrong, help provide the insurgency with its motivation as well as its recruiting slogans.

Indeed, such negative perceptions are not limited to the Sunni Arabs. While 82 per cent of that group want an early departure of US forces, according to a recent survey by Zogby International, 69 per cent of Iraq’s majority Shia population (which won at least 60 per cent of parliamentary seats in the recent election) said the same thing. To counter this view and build support for reconciliation between the various political forces, the US should develop a plan for a withdrawal lasting some 18 months. It should be designed together with the Iraqi government now being formed. Over the period, Iraq would complete its political transition process after the drafting and ratification of a constitution this year and elections for a regular government in early winter. There would also be time to complete at least basic training of most of Iraq’s main police and army formations.

Even after the 18 months, the US should not abandon Iraq. A new mandate for a foreign military presence could be created, assuming the Iraqi government wanted it. US forces might still participate in the new mission, but would make up a much smaller percentage than the 85 per cent today. Such a force could be established under a Nato command, which would reduce the perception that the forces were designed to serve US political interests unrelated to the success of democracy in Iraq. (Non-Nato troops could also participate, and should be welcomed, as was the case in the Balkans.) The experience in Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrates that US forces can operate effectively and safely in a Nato command without sacrificing basic principles of US command authority, including the US president’s authority as commander-in-chief, not least because Nato’s top military commander is a US general.

As the leading nation in Nato, the US would continue to have a dominant voice in the activities of such a force – which might number 30,000-50,000 troops (in contrast to today’s 175,000), and would continue to train Iraqi forces as well as provide emergency counter-insurgency backup. But the leading European countries would also have considerable influence. Washington could not call all the shots, and the world would know it. For most Iraqis, and for Arabs and other Muslims outside Iraq, the change would signal US willingness to support a democratic Iraq irrespective of whether the new government agreed with US wishes. This arrangement might also lead to greater European willingness to contribute funds and troops.

Would such a strategy help the insurgents by encouraging them to wait until foreign troops leave? On the contrary, it would undercut their best argument for recruitment—the need to fight a foreign occupation. If they choose to lay low until forces withdraw next year, they will find a more capable Iraqi army that has the support of its own people through an elected government—and a year of relative peace that will have fostered reconstruction activities, helping ensure popular resistance to further acts of insurgency. Thus, a plan for withdrawal is not really an “exit” strategy. It is a strategy for success.