Project on Defense Alternatives

Like a Mirage in the Desert:
full withdrawal may recede into the time horizon

by Charles Knight
Presentation at the United States Institute of Peace
panel on The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq
25 July 2008 (as prepared)

[The panel consisted of Kimberly Kagan, Colin Kahl, Charles Knight, and Rend al-Rahim, with Daniel Serwer serving as moderator. Charles Knight's presentation followed that of Kimberly Kagan.]

Good morning. You may recall the line from Monty Python.., "Now for something completely different!"

I am one of the organizers of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq where we have published a set of 25 initiatives that complement and support a short timeline military withdrawal. They involve very considerable engagement -- some of it extending years into the future. Please take and read a copy of the Task Force Report available on the table out front.

So. get the troops out very soon and remain responsibly engaged in Iraq and the region.

I would disengage from failed policies of the past -- policies based on strategic error and that have led us into a strategic disaster.

Military occupation of Iraq is the central feature of this strategic error. With a new administration soon in the White House, it is time to "come to our senses, stop digging, and climb out of the hole." No amount of clever adjustment at the tactical and operational levels will get us where we need to be. Only strategic change can get us on the road to recovery.

Three fundamental strategic errors have been made:

  • First, we miscalculated what might be accomplished by force of arms. We failed to appreciate the limits on the utility of military power;
  • Second, we failed to appreciate the power and dynamics of identity politics... and the likely reaction to foreign occupation.
  • Third, we failed to take seriously the importance of international cooperation and legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

The price we and others are paying for these blunders is not measured in blood and treasure alone -- although these costs are already terribly high. One example of these extraordinary costs that we have addressed in the Task Force report:

There are now millions of refugees and millions of internally displaced persons, totaling nearly 15% of the Iraq population. The displacement of a proportional number of Americans would mean: 45 million forced from their homes, the equivalent of emptying out the population of America's ten largest cities. This happened under the American watch in Iraq. It is an immense failure for an occupying power; one we still respond to in the most 'care less' of ways.

In addition we have:

  • weakened and misdirected our security assets -- since 2004 the Army has been at an unsustainable optempo with accumulating harm to that service;
  • severely damaged the reputation of the US, especially in the Muslim world;
  • damaged US alliances;
  • created a catalyst for communal conflict and provided a recruiting gift to Iraqi extremists;
  • provided a motivator for jihadism and for terrorist tactics worldwide;
  • handed Iran strategic and economic benefits which accrue every day we keep our troops in Iraq;
  • tarnished the meaning and the promise of democracy -- and undermined our efforts to promote it.

A New Basis for US Policy and Engagement

Moving from the level of strategy to consider US operational policy in Iraq, it becomes clear that we must proceed on an entirely new basis -- one that puts the Iraqis at the center and that gathers the international community to our side as equal partners in supporting reconciliation and recovery for this traumatized society.

The "new basis" necessarily begins with setting a credible -- meaning short -- timeline for withdrawal. This, because:

  • Withdrawal is essential to drawing the remaining "rejectionists", Sunni and Shia alike, into the political process;
  • Withdrawal is essential to further reducing the appeal of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia;
  • Withdrawal is essential to restoring the credibility of the Iraqi government as sovereign and as a leader of an inclusion and reconciliation process, and;
  • Withdrawal is essential to unblocking international cooperation -- especially that of key contact states -- who can do more to help stabilize Iraq.

Only some of the benefits of setting a credible withdrawal timeline will materialize simply by announcing the withdrawal. In addition it will take effective diplomacy and considerable resources, before and after, to draw the rejectionists in and catalyze international cooperation and support. This is much of what we have specified in the Task Force Report.

A New Realism

The "new basis" of policy implies a new realism about what we can hope to accomplish in Iraq and how. It means finally coming to terms with a number of uncomfortable facts:

American military presence and action has been part of the problem. ... It is an affront to Iraqi national and communal identities. And a stimulant to rejectionism and insurgency and violence;
From the start, we have been handicapped by being an alien power. It means we are judged by a different standard. And it tars everyone who works with us... it makes suspect every process we presume to lead.
Our "moral authority"...our ability to truly win "hearts and minds" in sufficient numbers has been undercut by too much firepower and too many house raids, checkpoint killings, road rams, jailings, and abuses of power. (Yes, others have done much worse, but that doesn't matter. As I said: We are judged differently because we are alien to Iraqi culture.)
Our authority is also undercut because we wear our privilege and self-interest on our sleeves. It's evident in our insistence of immunity for our nationals and in the details of basing agreements and oil deals we try to cut.

So we shouldn't be surprised, when opinion polls find that very few Iraqis think the US is doing a good job in their country. Nor should we be surprised when focus groups conducted for our military command find, as the Washington Post reports, that "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of 'occupying forces' as the key to national reconciliation."1  Sentiments like these contribute to Maliki's push back on basing agreements and to his support of a withdrawal timeline.

A final element of requisite realism has to do with the goal of producing a reliably stable, secure, well-governed, and prosperous Iraq. This is the work of decades, not years. It is principally a political job. And it is principally the job of Iraqis -- although they will need substantial international support. What sort of international support, is the question. Support dominated by the US will continue to get in the way of progress. So, any strategy that involves staying militarily is at odds with putative US goals for Iraqi society.

Beyond the surge

The surge has brought down the level of violence, right? Yes. and today the level of violence is comparable, proportionately, to the worst years of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. It is a very good thing that fewer are dying in Iraq, but that improvement alone is far from sufficient evidence from which to conclude that our policy is now on the right track.

And how did the reduction in violence come about? Not principally by the application of increased US military power or by adopting new counter-insurgency doctrine, but by accommodating and supporting the desire of Sunnis for local control and by "coming to terms" with Moqtada al-Sadr and by his decision, encouraged by Iran, to stand-down his armed contest with the Badr brigades.

As we assess the so-called "surge strategy," it is important to note its limits:

  • The surge has reduced violence by leveraging and reinforcing the inter-communal and intra-communal divisions that plague Iraq -- think of the walls American soldiers have built to separate Sunni and Shia enclaves in Baghdad; And,
  • The fact remains that none of the powerful Iraqi groups or leaders with whom we are currently allied share the American vision or purpose -- not even the Kurds. Our alliances are marriages of convenience -- and shaky ones at that.

Indeed, the surge marks the limit of what the United States might accomplish in Iraq by military means. Now we need to bring into the political process most of the remaining rejectionists and to catalyze the type of international support that will facilitate this inclusion and a national accord. And this requires US military withdrawal.

Some proponents of staying warn us about backsliding if the US leaves, including the specter of a failed state wherein al Qaeda will thrive.

Firstly, this warning displays a basic misunderstanding of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia which was founded as a reaction to the US invasion. When the US leaves Iraq it looses its primary motivation for its members. Rather than thrive, it is very likely to fade.

Secondly, political instability does not equal a failed state -- there are many ways of avoiding that outcome that do not involve keeping our troops there indefinitely. Iraq is a traumatized society and that condition is a major contributing factor to why Iraq will be politically volatile for a long time to come. But seeking to shape or control Iraqi politics with Army brigades is to perpetuate the use of a blunt and inappropriate tool that does at least as much harm as it does good. Staying means staying for a very long time! Our presence is one cause of the violence -- we will always be seen as a foreign invader to be resisted.

We must get over the notion that stabilizing Iraq is something for the US to do, that it is something we can do. Stability is fundamentally something for Iraqis themselves to achieve. Since US intervention is a contributing factor to Iraqi national problems, effective outside help will have to move through international agency, not bilateral arrangements or narrow multi-lateral arrangements dominated by Western nations.

Looking at the details of the proposals for "getting out as soon as conditions allow", such as Colin Kahl's, I find structures of dependency that have no end point. For instance, the CNAS report suggested that the US will need to manage the Sons of Iraq formations we have been supporting by "preventing them from acquiring heavy weapons, tightly restricting their jurisdictions and movement, and closely monitoring them for compliance so that they do not rub up against rival militias." 2  That strikes me as a level of control over native forces typical of a colonial power, not a reasonable mission for an army that is planning to leave anytime soon. Embrace that sort of mission and you will be there for a very long time.

If it is strategically important to leave, we must understand that it is an illusion to think we'll just linger a while longer to fix things up in Iraq before we leave. As long as the US stays in Iraq the goal of national reconciliation will recede into the time horizon like a mirage in the desert.

What of the important measures to complement withdrawal?

I will mention several of the most important.

First, the US should call for the establishment, as part of the existing International Compact with Iraq, of an International Support Group comprising the five permanent Security Council members, Iraq's six neighbors, and a representative of the UN Secretary General. Within this Support Group the US should seek an agreement on a code of conduct for international relations with Iraq, emphasizing the principle of non-interference, an agreement on common goals and compromises required for the stabilization of Iraq, and collaborative support for a reinvigorated Iraqi inclusion and reconciliation process.

As vital background to this, the US must re-engage Syria and Iran in non-coercive "give-and-take" diplomacy addressing bilateral issues. Proceeding on the basis of mutual respect, this diplomacy should have a wide-ranging scope, thereby affording the United States maximum leverage in talks about the mutual benefits of principled non-interference in Iraq. Talks of this scope would also need to address what else Syria and Iran could do, beyond pledging non-interference in Iraq, to calm regional tensions. Obviously, there is no basis for these discussions unless the US is ready to pledge and demonstrate non-interference as well. That requires a short timeline for withdrawal.

Key provisions of the Report of the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq

  • Announce short timeline for withdrawal and use as leverage to pull rejectionists into the political process of national accord; the withdrawal timeline to be embedded in a new UN Mandate negotiated in 2009.
  • Pursue a national reconciliation process under UN auspices and with participation of relevant regional bodies.
  • Build a new regional body of contact states, the International Support Group, to achieve real cooperation.
  • Assist Iraqis and the UN in convening a pan-Iraqi conference on reconciliation, backed by an expanded writ for a UN mission in Iraq.
  • Enhance legitimacy of stabilization and reconstruction efforts by placing under UN auspices with a powerful consortium of states in support. US to provide substantial financial support. UN is the political executive of effort, and also coordinates and oversees.
  • Immediately re-engage Syria and Iran in non-coercive "give-and-take" diplomacy addressing bilateral issues. Engage with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey seeking their support for peace and economic recovery efforts in Iraq.
  • Ramp up economic and humanitarian assistance, including a jobs program that will employ at least a half million people.


1. Karen DeYoung. "All Iraqi Groups Blame U.S. Invasion for Discord, Study Shows," Washington Post, 19 December 2007.

2. Colin H. Kahl, Michele A. Flournoy, and Shawn Brimley. "Shaping the Iraq Inheritance," Center for New American Security, 2008. p. 23.

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