Discussing withdrawal from Iraq

I tried a little while ago to start a discussion of this subject without a great deal of success. The conversation quickly degenerated into name-calling. Now Dan Darling has started a discussion of the same subject over at Winds of Change. Dan adds an interesting and important log onto the fire:

What I’m worried about, and this was underscored by my Thanksgiving trip back home to Fort Leavenworth and talking with literally dozens of officers and enlisted who have recently served in Iraq (I communicate with a lot of them, as well as folks still serving in Iraq, on a regular basis via e-mail, but there’s a big difference between getting this sentiment in one-on-one conversations versus getting it from dozens of people in person in 24-48 hours), is that a lot of the impetus to pull US forces from Iraq are due to the fact that the National Guard and the Reserves are more or less broken and aren’t likely to be replaced any time soon. One officer that I have a lot of respect for stated that had we increased the total size of our military in 2001 or 2002 or 2003 or even 2004, it would have gone a long way towards avoiding many of the current problems that we are currently facing. Assuming this officer wasn’t relying on hyperbole, this would seem to add further ammo, at least to me, for the McCain/DLC initiative to increase the total size of the US military.

I think that both advocates of withdrawal and advocates of staying the course have tremendously difficult issues that they need to address.

Those who advocate withdrawal before a stable and decent government has been established in Iraq should consider the implications of such a course of action. If we withdraw our forces from the Iraqi cities into the countryside (as was suggested by Juan Cole), this does little to combat the rising level of ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq. Presumably the assumption is that the overwhelming preponderance of the insurgency’s goal is removing the occupation. Does moving into the countryside achieve this? Or just encourage more attacks? And how do you square this with the reality that the targets of most attacks these days are Iraqis? The insurgency would appear to me to be not just an insurgency against Americans but against the current Iraqi government whose objective is to re-establish the status quo ante or, worse, a Taliban-style regime in Iraq. That’s certainly what’s happened everywhere in Iraq they’ve actually established some level of control.

If we withdraw from Iraq to an “over the horizon” presence in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or other Gulf States as suggested by Congressman Murtha, how does that address any of the problems above? Does it continue to encourage the resentment of people in the area and put our military in danger of continuing Khobar Towers-type attacks? And how does it address Dan’s problem above?

If we remove troops from Iraq and bring them home, won’t this, as Dan suggests, create a Congo-type situation in which Iraq’s neighbors intervene from time to time in the ongoing civil war there? If, by removing Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, we’ve de-stabilized the Middle East, isn’t the better course of action now to attempt to control the outcome of the de-stabilization rather than just abandoning the people there to their fates? Ride the wave rather or be drowned by it?

And if all we achieve is the status quo ante what is the new grand strategy for the War on Terror?

That’s probably the worst aspect of withdrawing from Iraq. We’ll have lost two three years in a blind-alley strategy having borne the costs, achieved none of the benefits, and without a new plan in place.

Those who advocate staying the course also have some ‘splaining to do. If your metrics for success are insurgents killed and insurgent strongholds pacified, it still remains to be seen if the numbers of insurgents and insurgent strongholds are fixed. If every insurgent killed creates more insurgents among the Iraqis and foreign jihadis continue to come across the borders from Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, when will the job be done? How do we sustain even the current level of activity in the face of mounting political pressure at home and the realities that Dan addresses above? And can the current level of forces in Iraq continue to battle insurgents, secure the borders of Iraq, and train the new Iraqi military?

If your metrics for success are schools and hospitals built and elections held, hold do those things alter the dynamics of opposition in Iraq? As was pointed out in the last post what’s emerging in Iraq may be an ethnic and sectarian civil war along the lines of Lebanon. So long as the current structures remain in place and the current incentives Sunni Arabs in particular will continue to see little to lose and much to gain by continued insurgency. The new Iraqi military is itself divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. It doesn’t seem to be a likely candidate for improving the situation but, rather, a part of the incipient problem.

And how do you plan to sustain the level of commitment we have now for the foreseeable future?

The most pernicious of the many errors we’ve made over the last several years is the notion that we can achieve good things in Iraq or in the War on Terror without substantial costs. That just isn’t going to happen. Come what may there will be major political, social, economic, and human costs.

I think that every project of any substantial scope should have a useable subset i.e. deliverables that are available at some fraction of the total cost of the project that has value in and of itself. Bringing democracy to Iraq doesn’t. Now we’ll either cut our losses and bear the costs we’ve already borne without any of the benefits either for ourselves or the Iraqis possibly creating big new hazards in the process or we’ll invest more in what may well be a forlorn hope to try and make good our losses.

Rather than ending on that note I want to repeat my plea to engage in a constructive discussion of changing the dynamics in Iraq. Neither staying the course nor declaring defeat and going home is a worthwhile strategy.

UPDATE: McQ of QandO Blog traces the history of plans for reductions of forces in Iraq and questions the timing of the MSM’s questioning of the timing.

Ed Morrisey thinks that Joe Biden’s take on the War on Terror as expressed in his Washington Post op-ed it totally wrong:

Nations do not deploy their troops in order to engage in timelines for their return. They send their men (and women) abroad to tackle specific missions, and the only timetable that matters is victory. Here Biden not only puts the cart before the horse, he also shows that he has no concept of victory.

If our security interests in Iraq have not been secured, then our troops need to remain there until the mission has succeeded. Not only should that be obvious to any thinking person, it answers Biden’s questions in the order they should have been asked.

On this much I agree with Captain Ed. But while removing terrorist strongholds and conducting elections are both good and necessary they’re not sufficient. And unless we change what’s going on in Iraq somehow we won’t alter the fundamental dynamics of the situation as we must do to either avoid a permanent mass deployment there or a descent into chaos.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jeff Medcalf of Caerdroia joins into the conversation with a post as sound as you’d expect from him. To which I respond: the removal of Saddam Hussein and his heinous regime, the end of support for terrorism in Iraq, the end of development programs for weapons of mass destruction, and our new bases in the Middle East are all contingent on our establishing a stable, decent government in Iraq. If we leave before it’s soup, a regime every bit as horrible (or worse) than Saddam’s may arise, sponsor terrorists, and develop programs for weapons of mass destruction. And, of course, we’ll have abandoned our new bases.

What we will retain is the knowledge of the very limited extent of Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Is that alone worth the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent and the lives of the more than 2,000 American that have been sacrificed? Would we have gone to war solely to achieve that objective? I thought that’s what we had a CIA for. Why do we have a CIA, anyway?

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Bill Quick says that what’s going on in Iraq isn’t representative individual democracy but “representative tribalism”. That view doesn’t sound incompatible with the view that Lounsbury expressed which kicked off this whole discussion. Bill writes:

Despite a lot of neo-con triumphalism about “establishing democracy in Iraq,” that goal is still twenty years down the road, minimum. What we have now in Iraq is representative tribalism, an entirely different breed of animal. Some might think there is no difference between the multiple tribes of Iraq, and the multiple political parties of Europe, but there is. In a tribalist society, the most important entity is the tribe, and the most important goal is gathering more and more power to the tribe, so as to better the lives of the tribal members, even at the expense of the nation itself. It’s a tragedy of the commons with tribes instead of individuals as players, and the ultimate expression of it in Iraq was the elevation of Saddam’s own tribe to a position of supremacy over every other tribe, and even over Iraq itself.

The questions remain: how do we achieve some resolution in Iraq in a manner that’s consistent with our goals and our values?

21 comments… add one
  • The most pernicious of the many errors we’ve made over the last several years is the notion that we can achieve good things in Iraq or in the War on Terror without substantial costs.

    Who had this notion? I don’t know any serious person who thought this, & I don’t believe the Administration thought this. There would of course also have been substantial costs in not toppling Saddam, but no one entertains that idea. The societal transformation in 2 years is staggering, altho the MSM continues to sell the idea that if a bomb goes off in Baghdad, the country is in chaos & the war is a failure. If a bomb goes off in LA, is California in chaos?

    As Ann Coulter pointed out, the Dems aren’t really interested in a pullout, only scoring political points, because when the Republicans called their bluff & put it to a vote, they voted against it. You could argue that it’s the Dems who held the quaint idea that there should be no costs, because now they’re acting like this tectonic, world-shaking event should be neatly wrapped up & put away (altho no one speaks of US soldiers still in Kosovo, Germany, or Japan).

  • I find myself in a somewhat unusual position because I was pro-war at the beginning with an estimated war casualty estimate of 10,000 prior to crossing the Iraqi border. Thus, a casualty count of 3, 4, or 5 thousand is still well under what I thought we were going to suffer at the beginning.

    Iraq is worth 10k US dead because a free, prosperous Iraq will show that Israel isn’t a fluke. It’s not a worldwide jewish conspiracy that makes Israel so well off in the region but rather its higher levels of respect for the rule of law, political pluralism, economic and social freedom. The big bang will play out in a free ME and an Islam that has reformed to the point that it’s no longer dangerously out of touch with the modern world.

    The World Trade Center destruction can easily be outdone in both raw bodycount and in infrastructure damage. Eventually, if we do not force the evolution of Islam, the WTC will be outdone. To prevent both mass casualty events and low grade warfare in the US, our present losses and more are fully justified.

    The question is raised regarding metrics for success. Here are mine and body counts are not on the primary list.

    Iraq needs to have a peaceful turnover of power from the present ruling coalition to a new government that does not include parties from the present government. The US learned a lot from inter-party power transfers and Iraq will too.

    Iraq’s security apparat needs to be up to its full staffing levels, counting only those units that are blooded and able to operate either in the lead or on their own. This one has a lot of interim targets.

    Iraq’s religious leadership (Sunni) has to back away from violence and reconcile itself with peaceful politics.

    Iraq’s religious leadership (Shia) needs to firmly and forcefully identify the mullahocracy in Iran as a Shia heresy.

    Iraq’s economy needs to diversify to the point where oil is no longer the primary driver.

    See, no bodycounts required:
    Iraqi arms will supply all the bodycounts necessary and Iraqi politicians will bring the maximum number of their countrymen in from the cold. Iraqi diplomats will cut the deals necessary to stop the spigot of foreign ratlines funneling jihadis into Iraq and the US will fade into a well-funded set of advisors and trainers. Eventually, we’ll send people there to learn as well as the Iraqis get better at certain aspects of this stuff than we do.

    One speculative metric. If/When Sistani & co. openly declare the heresy of Khomeinism, the fall of Iran’s regime based on muslim’s debating and defeating muslims will be an extraordinary victory.

  • Who had this notion?

    Good question. So far in the War on Terror we haven’t trimmed domestic spending, increased taxes, levied a draft, increased the size of the military, or changed our behavior in any meaningful way. There are longer (meaningless) lines at the airport. Other than that all the burdens are being borne by people in the military and their families (the smallest proportion of the population of any war in our history).

    On the one hand President Bush has repeatedly said there’s a long, hard road ahead. On the other his advice after 9/11 was “resume your normal lives”. And the long, hard road hasn’t been reflected in any changes in domestic policy priorities.

    So, I’d say the Administration has been promulgating a mixed message at best.

    And the press has systematically emphasized unrealistically short, low-cost scenarios at the expense of realism.

    TM Lutas, although I was opposed to invasion, I’m not in the “withdraw now” camp. But I’m also not in the “stay the course” camp.

    What I want the President to do is to sell the war. Every day. In public. In policy priorities.

    And we also need some big, visible victories. Jacksonians (who mostly comprise our military) don’t have a problem with going to war but they have historically had a problem with taking casualties on an ongoing basis without enough in the way of visible results.

    But at the current rate of backpedalling and unselling by Congress and the Press I don’t see any way we’re going to be able to sustain a large enough military presence in Iraq.

  • Pug

    As Ann Coulter pointed out

    Sorry Jeff, with that introduction to any point it isn’t even worth considering the rest.

    If a bomb goes off in LA, is California in chaos?

    Short answer, yes. One bomb in LA, no. But if bombs are going off in LA, Newport Beach, Anaheim and Ontario every day and scores and hundreds of civilians are being killed and maimed, if up to 30 police at a time around the state are being murdered and 160,000 foreign troops are deployed throughout the state, of course California is in chaos.

  • Great post – great thinking as usual.

    Expanding the army should have been a given from 9/11. This is where I think that Rummy is the wrong man for the job and should have been replaced ages ago – at least after Abu Ghraib.

    As for the exit scenarios being tossed about, the big problem for the forseeble future is the ability of the Iraqi government to resist foreign intervention in its affairs. Unless we want another Lebanon, we can’t leave until some kind of yardstick regarding Shi’ite-Sunni cooperation is achieved which will demonstrate that the Iraqi state is strong enough to stand on its own and not be roiled by any machinations from Tehran or Syria.

    The bitter enders have to give up armed resistance and come into the democratic process.. They did it in South Africa. They must do it in Iraq.

  • Thanks, Rick.

    The bitter enders have to give up armed resistance and come into the democratic process.. They did it in South Africa. They must do it in Iraq.

    The difficult question is how? I tend to prefer approaches that include both carrots and sticks. The problem with both is that the “bitter enders” don’t give a damn about the Iraqi people, not even their own. How can a penalty or an incentive be constructed that would motivate them?

    Actually, I can imagine some but I can’t imagine our implementing them. For example, we could start engaging in clan warfare. Member of a clan caught in terrorism? Round-up all the members. Start executing them.

    This has worked before in the Middle East (in Jordan). But I don’t want our soldiers being placed in the position of that kind of horror.

  • Sorry Jeff, with that introduction to any point it isn’t even worth considering the rest.

    Speaks for itself

  • Dave, collective punishment would violate our Geneva Convention obligations. It worked in Mexico, too, by the way, in the 1840s.

    I’m with you on the CIA, and while we’re at it let’s throw in the State Department. By and large, both organizations have come to take on institutional characters that are not necessarily in service to the nation or its government, but to their own notions of how international relations should be handled. I believe that we should revoke the civil service rules put in place to stop nepotism, at least for positions with any kind of policy responsibility. Right now, it is only the highest levels of those organizations that can be changed by the current government, which is why we get these covert attacks by the CIA and State against the current government’s policy, if that policy isn’t what the higher-level bureaucrats at State and CIA want.

    And it is that institutional bureaucratic mind set that focuses institutions designed for foreign affairs instead on internal and domestic political battles, and leads to incompetence or worse. And frankly, I’d rather have nepotism: at least it only lasts for four years at a time.

  • I’m well aware of that, Jeff. I guess that’s my point: we’re not going to take the measures that might be effective.

    My own feeling about the CIA is that we should recognize that we made a mistake after WWII, abolish the CIA, put the overseas operations under the Pentagon, the domestic counter-terrorism operations under the FBI, and outsource the intelligence gathering.

  • Herzog

    Nice blog! You might want to check out http://www.50billionsexpositionstokeepyouupallnight.com! Just kidding.
    I have to say I admire the way you keep coming back to the topic without blowing a gasket like a lot of bloggers do. Your links to tigerhawk demonstrate your openmindednessandwillingness to learn.

  • avaroo

    On the issue of a draft, I can’t see what we would do with more troops if we had a draft. Why would we need so many troops? Now, or after the 12/15 elections, we’ll likely begin to withdraw our forces, not add to them. We’re not staying forever, just until the Iraqis get their democracy feet on the ground.

    The military always bears the brunt of the burden in any war. And after 9/11, Bush was right to ask people to resume their normal lives. The war on terror is being prosecuted but it was never likely that every American would be part of that. I understand the feeling that we should all be sharing in the cost of the war, and we are, at least financially. That’s the only way a population ever shares the cost completely.

  • There has to be two levels of measure, as I see it. One is political and subjective: Does Iraq have an established political system that can sustain itself as a democracy? That means all parties are involved and political outcomes are accept by winners and losers.

    The second is security oriented and fairly objective. For the population size, does Iraq have sufficient number of qualified troops and police to make the streets safe and protect the government from violent over throw? I do not know what that number is but somewhere in the Pentagon, hopefully, someone is trying to figure it out.

    Would it be better if we could eliminate the terrorist in Iraq before we leave? Sure. If we cannot, then we need to make sure the Iraqi forces can keep them down. Much as our victory is based on our will to fight and so is theirs. Sadly, many of our political and media “leaders” do not seem to mind supporting our enemies will to fight. When you hear an American talk about “withdrawal” and “quagmire”, Iraqi terrorist here “Victory.”

  • newc

    It does not matter in the middle east what you do anymore as long as you are successful.

  • Vinnie Ray

    Withdrawing our troops while under Donald Rumsfeld is unthinkable. He screwed this up in the first place, and now we expect the same person to be in charge of withdrawl? It will be like giving your credit card to your brother, who blows $50,000 of your money in Vegas, and then ask HIM to win it back.

    Pressuring Rumsfeld to resign is equally unrealistic and a pure waste of energy for people who care about getting things right. There was Rumsfeld and Cheney long before there was Bush. Cheney, Rumsfeld and others formed their core group back in Gerard Ford’s day; Bush simply joined the team. Keep dreaming about unplugging Rumsfeld if you can’t even unplug Bush.

    In my view, the only hope for peace in the Middle East is wait out Bush’s term and pray that things don’t get too out of hand before then. Pray that the American public will elect someone who has a practical approach to the war, someone who listens to all the field commanders and not just those who tell him what he wants to believe. Someone who is competent.

  • Hello, how are you?
    What is your name?

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