March 14, 2006

March 14, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

What's next in Iraq? Leaving too early would help terrorists

The issue: March 19 marks the three-year anniversary of the Iraq war. Much has been accomplished: A constitution has been written and elections held. But sectarian violence has intensified since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine.

Earlier this month, Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin stated his belief that Iraq had descended into civil war. The Register asked Harkin and nation-security expert James Jay Carafano to address what the United States should do now.

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every vexing, complex and intractable problem, there is a solution that is simple, elegant and wrongheaded. The apoplectic call to immediately withdraw all U.S. military troops from Iraq is one of those kinds of answers.

First of all, it is worth pointing out that in substance, President Bush and those who oppose the presence of American troops in Iraq agree. Neither wants GIs to stay there. Both want a peaceful, secure and prosperous Iraq. Neither believes that keeping our troops there is the long-term solution to eliminating the violence that plagues the country.

Where the president and his critics part company is on the right strategy to safeguard U.S. interests and assist the Iraqis. Bush's approach is that as the "Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down." In other words, as Iraqi security forces are trained and certified, they will take over and U.S. troops will be in support roles and gradually withdrawn.

This is actually the tried-and-true strategy, the one the United States employed during its occupations in Europe and Japan after World War II. As legitimate governments stood up and were supported by their own police and military, the Americans got out of the business of running their countries.

If the Cold War hadn't broken out, all the GIs likely would have been home by 1948, even though, at that point, Europe and Japan were hardly out of the woods in their efforts to build stable societies and get on with the task of post-war reconstruction.

The alternative is to just leave. That's a problem. Right now, the Iraqi forces can't be sustained with administrative and logistical support from the U.S. military. And the presence of coalition forces prevents any side from thinking they can run away with the country.

Going to zero coalition forces in Iraq would be like creating the conditions for a Rwanda writ large, where the absence of a credible international force encouraged unprecedented genocide and rekindled civil war. Indeed, that is what the terrorists want - a no man's land of bloodletting that might eventually lead to another Taliban-style regime.

Whether Iraq succeeds or fails as a nation is now largely up to the Iraqis. They have their own sovereign government, police and military. Securing Iraq's future is their job. What they know for a fact is that if all coalition troops leave now, they will fail. That is why the government, freely elected by the Iraqi people, has pleaded with the governments of the coalition forces to leave their troops there for now.

America's troops should come home. An open-ended promise to leave our troops there forever would only encourage the Iraqis to avoid addressing the tough tasks they face in rebuilding their own nation and serve as a rallying cry for the murderers who would like to turn Iraq into a terrorist-Disneyland. The United States should begin a phased reduction of its activities and its forces in Iraq that makes strategic sense.


James Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in  the Des Moines Register