Three plans for leaving Iraq: Which is best?

Military analysis.
Dec. 8 2005 6:37 PM

How To Withdraw

Three plans for leaving Iraq: Which is best?

Now that some sort of troop withdrawal from Iraq seems in the cards, it's time to focus on questions of strategy and tactics: How many U.S. troops will leave Iraq and how quickly? Which troops will stay and for how long? What will they do? Where do the departing troops go? How do we pull out without triggering civil war or appearing to surrender?

If President George W. Bush has answers, he's not saying. It takes a close parsing of his recent "strategy for victory" speeches—supplemented by the more explicit remarks of his secretary of state and others—to realize that they imply the start of a pullout soon after the New Year.

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It's regrettable that Rep. John Murtha, who pushed the withdrawal option to the political center, made his move before Iraq's Dec. 15 elections. A U.S. pullout would be far more palatable—politically, strategically, and morally—if it at least appeared to come at the request of the new, democratically chosen Iraqi government. The Bush administration may even have been leaning toward that scenario before Murtha spoke up.

But now the issue is out there. So, how do we do it? Withdrawal plans are wafting through the journals and op-ed pages. Let's look at a few.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who submitted a surprisingly impractical plan for winning (or at least not losing too badly) to the Washington Post this past September, wrote another odd piece for the Dec. 6 New York Times. Clark should know this territory; he led troops in Vietnam, commanded the war over Kosovo, and helped negotiate the peace in Bosnia. Yet his latest piece seems like something scribbled over breakfast.

On the one hand, Clark calls for deploying 20,000 U.S. troops to provide "training, supervision, and backup" along Iraq's borders, as well as 30,000 troops to step up operations against insurgents. Yet he also recommends drawing down 30,000 troops after Iraq's elections. Which is it—more troops, fewer troops, both?

His math is merely confusing; his politics are head-spinning. The Iraqi government, he writes, "must begin to enforce the ban on armed militias." Ideally, he adds, this should be done voluntarily, but "American muscle will have to be made available as a last resort." Is Clark really proposing that, beyond the already exhausting tasks of securing cities and fighting insurgents, U.S. troops should start battling and disarming the Kurdish peshmerga and Muqtada al-Sadr's army?

"And," Clark goes on, "we must start using America's diplomatic strength with Syria and Iran" to get those two countries to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs. OK. Any suggestions how? Clark seems to think we still control what happens in and around Iraq, when the most basic, unnerving fact about the present phase of our occupation is that we control so very little.

For this reason, the two most thoughtful and persuasive essays on the Iraqi endgame are also the least ambitious and reassuring: James Fallows' article in the December issue of the Atlantic and Barry Posen's plan for an exit strategy in the forthcoming January/February Boston Review.

Fallows explains all too clearly why the Iraqi security forces aren't up to the task of defending or stabilizing the country by themselves and why they won't be for a long time. But rather than leaving his article as a thoroughly researched piece of journalism, he takes a step out on the plank and asks what we should do about it.

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