Project on Defense Alternatives

Where Do We Go From Here?

New York Times Editorial, 07 July 2008

The alarming resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes it even more imperative for the United States to begin planning for a swift and orderly withdrawal from Iraq.

For far too long President Bush's disastrous war of choice in Iraq has leached resources and top-level attention from the war of necessity in Afghanistan. A grim new statistic underscores just how badly things are going there: 46 American and allied forces died in Afghanistan in June, more than during any other month since the war began in 2001. And for the second straight month, combat deaths in Afghanistan exceeded those for American-led forces in Iraq, where 31 troops died.

The recent decline in violence in Iraq is very welcome, but it has yet to be matched with essential political reforms. Instead of planning for a serious drawdown of American troops, the White House is using its self-proclaimed success as one more excuse for staying on. Mr. Bush's successor will almost certainly inherit an Iraq with at least 130,000 American troops still fighting there.

Until now nearly all of the presidential debate has focused on whether and when a withdrawal should occur. Senator John McCain says he will stay on until "victory" is achieved. But he has not fully explained what that means or how it can be accomplished, much less how it can be accomplished while simultaneously routing militants in Afghanistan.

Senator Barack Obama is right when he says the United States must withdraw from Iraq so it can finish the fight in Afghanistan. But after promising to immediately begin drawing down troops by one or two brigades a month, he is now giving himself wiggle room by suggesting he will let military commanders set the pace.

What is needed is a far more serious, public discussion by the two candidates about how they plan to meet their commitments and also ensure that Iraq's chaos does not spin further out of control or spread even further over its borders.

Fortunately, two new reports - one by the centrist Center for a New American Security and the other by a liberal-leaning task force involving the Commonwealth Institute, some members of Congress and many academics - are asking those far more complicated questions. They have differences, especially on the timing of withdrawal, but they point the debate in the right direction. Most notably:

With two wars under way, the transition from President Bush to his successor will be riskier than any in recent memory. The presidential candidates must begin explaining, in detail, how they plan to handle both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They can start by answering the questions listed here.

With offices in Washington DC and Cambridge MA, the Project on Defense Alternatives develops and promotes defense policy innovation that reconciles the goals of effective defense against aggression, improved international cooperation and stability, and lower levels of military spending and armed force worldwide. Subscribe to the monthly PDA Updates Bulletin.