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Experts Differ on How to End Iraq War


U.S. Army Soldiers and Iraqi army soldiers conduct a search mission for illegal firearms and improvised explosive devices in Baghdad. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey)

Ever since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Der Spiegel magazine last month that he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from his country in 2010, momentum in the Iraq debate has shifted toward those who favor extrication.

Even the Bush administration, which long argued that setting a date for withdrawal from Iraq would invite disaster, is reportedly acquiescing to Iraqi demands that an accord governing the status of U.S. troops in Iraq after 2008 will specify a end date for the U.S. occupation. Now, the only significant force in U.S. politics strongly arguing against withdrawal from Iraq is the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

But important as a growing national consensus behind U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is, it sidesteps a large question. What kind of withdrawal should we have?

A wide range of options exist. On one end of the spectrum, some argue that the safest bulwark against a resurgence of sectarian-based instability will be to gradually reduce combat forces — but keep a robust U.S. military adviser presence in Iraq indefinitely, to assist the still-nascent Iraqi security forces.

On the other, a group of Democratic congressional candidates, advised by prominent military leaders, contend that a withdrawal must begin immediately and end with no residual force, though it does not specify a set date for ending the war. In between are a number of plans put forward by liberal or Democratic-aligned think tanks and foundations — and by Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign itself.

John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and leader in the counterinsurgency community, is a prominent advocate of the former position. Arguing for what he calls a “glide slope” transition, Nagl believes that over the next two years, combat brigades can be replaced by battalion-sized task forces to assist Iraqi security forces in combat operations but bear less and less of a direct combat burden. “By 2010, I think [the U.S. troop presence] could be halved, to 70,000,” Nagl said , speaking at a forum sponsored by the liberal Center for American Progress on Monday. He further argued that subsequent withdrawals would move U.S. troops “out of the cities first,” until America’s presence in Iraq became “invisible” — and therefore not provocative to nationalistic Iraqis.

But Nagl, who recently returned from a 10-day tour of Iraq, is not convinced of the wisdom of full withdrawal. By 2013, he said, he could envision a U.S. presence of approximately 35,000 troops — pending the improved “capability and capacity” of the Iraqis — and advocates keeping an advisory presence in Iraq on an open-ended basis. “The Iraqis absolutely want Americans to leave,” Nagl said at the forum, “but not yet and not soon.”

Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, critiqued Nagl’s proposal as being disconnected from Iraqi politics. “His ideas seem to be in isolation of an Iraq that is deeply fragmented and fracturing, and assuming that training and mentoring of security forces will be the magic glue that holds the country together,” Katulis said in an email, “when other elements are necessary for success, like a common sense of national identity and a consensus on power-sharing among key groups. In a sense, the plan is stuck in the tactics of military assistance and training, and fails to answer the core questions of what is Iraq; how its leaders are going to rule Iraq, and what are the instruments of power that will enable them to provide their country with law and order and justice.”

Katulis has been a leading proponent of withdrawal for years. With Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration defense official, he wrote two reports — 2005’s “Strategic Redeployment” and 2007’s “Strategic Reset” — that argue for setting dates for full troop withdrawal and adopting a multitiered diplomatic strategy to broker sectarian and political reconciliation. “It’s important to set a date,” Korb said at the forum. “[Withdrawal] is the one thing that all of the factions in Iraq agree on and… [will] motivate the government in Iraq to do what they need to do to bring about meaningful reconciliation.” At the forum Monday, Korb unveiled a new paper, “How To Withdraw,” that argues a full withdrawal could occur within eight to 10 months of a decision to leave Iraq.

A different strategy is suggested by the Center for a New American Security, where Nagl is now a fellow. In June, Michele Flournoy, co-president of the Democratic-leaning think tank, and senior fellows Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley published “Shaping The Iraq Inheritance,” a paper contending that Washington has to use its troop drawdowns to pressure Iraqi leaders into making difficult political compromises. Unlike the Center for American Progress, the Center for a New American Security’s strategy — dubbed “conditional engagement” — calls for Washington to use the stick of revoking continued aid and support to the Iraqi government as a means to yield political progress. “The premise is continued engagement, not disengagement,” the authors write, “but in contrast to the Bush administration’s current approach, America’s support to Iraq would not come for free.”

At the forum, Kahl — who was in the audience — disagreed with his CNAS colleague Nagl over whether Iraqis had the political will for making certain compromises. But he also criticized Korb for not putting forward “a theory of politics” to explain why Iraqi reconciliation would occur “if we withdraw in total.” Kahl is a member of the Obama campaign’s Iraq policy team.

Obama’s proposal is more difficult to map. Like Nagl, Obama favors keeping a residual force in Iraq “to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against Al Qaeda in Iraq.” But he favors an accelerated withdrawal of combat forces, occurring at a rate of one to two brigades a month over 16 months, though he indicated last month that he would allow commanders operational flexibility in executing a withdrawal. Similarly, Obama’s website contends that a “phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country and making political compromises.” The Obama proposal doesn’t suggest conditioning future aid on political compromise.

Yet another plan on offer comes not from think tanks or presidential campaigns, but from Democratic congressional candidates around the country. Known as the Responsible Plan To End The War In Iraq, and originating from the campaign of Darcy Burner, a House candidate in Washington state’s 8th congressional district, it does not set a date for withdrawal but categorically rejects a residual presence. “The continued presence in Iraq of so-called ‘residual’ forces beyond the minimum needed for standard embassy-protection would be a serious mistake,” the plan contends. “Any such troops would become a magnet for insurgent attacks and unless they did nothing at all would inevitably become players in Iraq’s domestic political disputes, thus forcing the United States to continue to play referee to Iraq’s civil conflicts.”

Burner spokesman Sandeep Kaushik said the plan is amenable to Obama’s call for removing one to two combat brigades a month but the Illinois senator’s proposal for a residual force clearly differs from this plan, which has the support of 54 House candidates and four Senate candidates. Residual forces are “a backdoor way of continuing the war almost indefinitely in the future,” Kaushik said.

Concern is abundant for all plans for withdrawal. On the left, Thomas Powers doubted in The New York Review of Books that any president would actually withdraw from Iraq. “Getting out, giving up, admitting defeat are not what we expect from the psychology of newly elected presidents who have just overcome all odds and battled through to personal victory,” Powers writes. “Planning for withdrawals might begin on Day One, but the plans will be hostage to events.”

Others believe that the next administration and Congress are all too committed to withdrawal. T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and counterinsurgency oracle, compared date-specific withdrawal plans to the Bush administration’s ideology-laden desires to invade. “Any decision like this has to be based on conditions in Iraq and in the region,” Hammes said at the Center for American Progress forum. Korb’s plan “starts with a vision [but] there’s no effort [at contingency planning] if the vision doesn’t end up being achieved.” Powers, in his New York Review piece, agrees, and he accepts a ruthless rejection of realism as a necessary cost of withdrawal: “Getting out of Iraq will require just as much resolution as it took to get in—and the same kind of resolution: a willingness to ignore the consequences.”

Yet Korb contended that withdrawal is necessary to preserve the past year’s current security gains in Iraq. “If you don’t set a deadline,” he said, “you will, in fact, undermine those gains, because if if the Sons of Iraq — the people who’ve been part of this Awakening movement that started in al-Anbar province — think that the United States will be there indefinitely, they will no longer cooperate with us.”

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