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September 21, 2007
By James Phillips
With mounting evidence showing that the Bush Administration's
surge policy has made significant military progress, the
congressional debate has shifted to focus on the need for political
progress toward national reconciliation in Iraq. Many opponents of
the surge continue to argue that the way to force Iraqis to
compromise is to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops. But such a policy is
likely to have the reverse effect. A premature reduction in troops
would squander hard-won gains in security, take the lid off
sectarian violence, strengthen the hand of Sunni and Shia
hard-liners at the expense of moderates, and set back efforts at
national reconciliation. The United States must maintain enough
troops in Iraq to help Iraq's young government to establish the
security conditions necessary to forge a durable power-sharing
Timetables for Meltdown
This week the Senate is considering amendments to the fiscal year
2008 defense authorization bill that would impose deadlines for the
withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq. The Senate defeated by a
vote of 70 to 28 an amendment sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold
(D-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to cut off
money for combat in Iraq by next June. The Senate will soon
consider an amendment by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed
(D-RI) that would force the removal of all U.S. troops within nine
months except for a small residual force that would be tasked with
counterterrorism operations, protecting American personnel,
training Iraqi security forces, and logistics support.
Supporters of withdrawal timetables argue that such precipitous
American action would somehow shock Iraqi political leaders into
taking necessary action to forge a more broadly based government
coalition that would drain away support for insurgents and
sectarian militias. This contention is far-fetched. A rapid pullout
of U.S. troops would inevitably be accompanied by a deteriorating
security situation that would reduce the prospects for political
compromise, not increase them.
Al-Qaeda forces now on the run would quickly regroup and renew
their murderous campaign to incite a civil war. The political
leaders of Iraq's Shia majority, which has born the brunt of
al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks, would be put under growing pressure
to take strong action to destroy al-Qaeda and other violent groups
and crush their Sunni supporters. Shia militias, which have been
forced to stand down in areas that were reinforced with U.S. troops
during the surge, would spring back up to launch vengeance attacks
Spiraling sectarian violence would dissolve the fragile trust
between Iraq's elected leaders and strengthen the hand of
hard-liners and militia commanders in every community. Advocates of
political compromise would be undermined and bitterly chastised for
not taking tough action to protect their followers. The end result
would be a political meltdown that would doom Iraq to a savage
A sudden U.S. withdrawal would increase the likelihood of a
full-fledged civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi army
into factions. The defection of soldiers (along with their heavy
equipment) to various militias would bolster the militias'
firepower and their capacity to seize and hold terrain. The result
would be a bloody and protracted civil war, similar to the conflict
in Bosnia following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The Surge and Awakening
The surge did not trigger the "Anbar Awakening," the backlash of
Sunni tribes against the harsh tactics of their former allies in
al-Qaeda. That rebellion was simmering long before the surge began
earlier this year. But the dispatch of additional U.S. troops to
Anbar province and other former insurgent strongholds helped to
expand the Sunni awakening to other areas, such as Baghdad and
Diyala Province, at a much quicker pace. As General Petraeus
testified, "the surge certainly enabled that to move much more
rapidly, we believe, than it otherwise would.have." The additional
security afforded by the surge emboldened many local Sunni leaders
to turn against al-Qaeda and order more than 20,000 Sunni tribesmen
to join security forces in attacking them.
Forcing a withdrawal of U.S. troops would hamstring efforts to
consolidate bottom-up political progress in Iraq. Several National
Intelligence Estimates have pointed out the grave implications of a
rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces-not only for Iraq but also for the
entire region-due to the destabilizing spillover effects of a
failed Iraqi state. Congress has also been warned by Iraqi
officials of the dire consequences of a premature withdrawal. Yet
many in Congress continue to turn a blind eye to the disastrous
consequences of a rush to exit.
Some proponents of an immediate pullout have sought to cloak the
negative consequences of their policy prescription with a
diplomatic fig leaf. The Levin-Reed amendment, for example,
proposes a vaguely defined international diplomatic effort that
would include the appointment of an international mediator for Iraq
under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council. It is
difficult to see how this would resolve Iraq's problems,
particularly if the security situation deteriorates due to a
reduction in American military operations. Moreover, such wishful
thinking ignores the fact that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
warned against the dangerous consequences of a rapid American
pullout on July 16: "It is not my place to inject myself into this
discussion taking place between the American people and the
Administration and Congress," Ban told a news conference. "However,
I would like to tell you that great caution should be taken for the
sake of the Iraqi people." He stressed that "Any abrupt withdrawal
or decision may lead to a further deterioration of the situation in
Reconciliation must be an Iraqi process, led by Iraqis. But to
give the political process the greatest possible chance at success,
the United States must remain actively involved in shoring up the
security situation. Prime Minister Maliki's government, only 16
months old, needs time to build up Iraq's security forces, reach a
compromise with moderate Sunnis, restore the rule of law, and
deliver better services to the Iraqi people. If the United States
succumbs to wishful thinking and undertakes a rapid withdrawal,
then Iraqi leaders are likely to harden their positions and take
fewer risks in efforts to reach a political compromise. Such a
negligent policy could result in a failed state in Iraq that would
be much more dangerous than Afghanistan as a base for al-Qaeda and
other terrorists in close proximity to the heart of the Arab world
and the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
is Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
To prevent the formation of a new base for al-Qaeda, the UnitedStates must help to establish the security conditions necessary forIraq's government to forge a durable power-sharing agreement.
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
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