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Withdrawal from Iraq — Contemplating the Consequences

The New York Times is making a big deal on their website about a leaked memo written by Colonel Timothy Reese, a U.S. military adviser in Baghdad. In the memo, Reese argues that we should accelerate our withdrawal from Iraq:

As the old saying goes, “guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose. Today the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are good enough to keep the Government of Iraq (GOI) from being overthrown by the actions of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Baathists, and the Shia violent extremists that might have toppled it a year or two ago. Iraq may well collapse into chaos of other causes, but we have made the ISF strong enough for the internal security mission. Perhaps it is one of those infamous paradoxes of counterinsurgency that while the ISF is not good in any objective sense, it is good enough for Iraq in 2009. Despite this foreboding disclaimer about an unstable future for Iraq, the United States has achieved our objectives in Iraq. Prime Minister (PM) Maliki hailed June 30th as a “great victory,” implying the victory was over the US. Leaving aside his childish chest pounding, he was more right than he knew. We too ought to declare victory and bring our combat forces home.

This is in some ways reminiscent of the advice I used to hear from some officers when visiting Baghdad prior to 2008. Although this was not the majority sentiment by any stretch, some iconoclasts in uniform would claim that the task was hopeless, that the Iraqis could never be good partners, and that therefore we should pull out. In other words, they thought we should pull out because we couldn’t win. Now Colonel Reese suggests we should pull out because we’ve already won and can’t achieve anything more. His rationale — the allegedly hopeless state of Iraqi political and military culture — is identical to that once cited by those who wanted to pull out even when the war was still raging against us.

Iraq is certainly a lot more peaceful than it was a few years ago, and the Iraqi Security Forces are certainly a lot more capable. But they still depend on the U.S. for vital services like logistics, fire support, and intelligence, and they won’t be able to run things entirely on their own for years to come. General Odierno just mentioned what has been obvious for a long time: Iraq won’t be ready to defend its own airspace by 2012, when all U.S. troops are supposed to be gone.

Pulling out U.S. troops now would risk major setbacks to the progress the Iraqi Security Forces have been making. Just as important, it would endanger the Iraqi political process. Various factions that are suspicious of one another have been able to hash out their differences in the political arena because of the implicit guarantee provided by the presence of 130,000 U.S. troops. Take out those troops and there is much greater risk that deep-seated divides, such as those between Kurds and Arabs or between Sunnis and Shiites, will once again flare into violence.

In essence, U.S. troops provide an insurance policy that Iraq will continue in the right direction. Colonel Reese may be right that Iraq is strong enough to stand on its own. But given the sacrifices that so many American personnel — including Colonel Reese — have made to get Iraq to this point, why would we want to take a chance on a premature pullout? Most of our troops will be gone by this time next year anyway. Even that withdrawal carries some risks, but pulling out now would be unacceptably dangerous.


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