Archive for July, 2008

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

July 12, 2008

Experts have been arguing over how fast and how much US troop levels should be reduced in Iraq.  A few months ago, Colin Kahl and William Odom debated the issue in Foreign Affairs (  Kahl argues that the US should follow a two-year timetable, leave a sizable number of support troops behind, and use its military leverage to push the Iraqi government to achieve political reconciliation.   Odom recommends a complete withdrawal to be achieved as soon as logistically possible.


I largely agree with Odom.  The presence of US troops may be temporarily limiting the violence in Iraq, but little progress has been made in terms of settling key political issues such as the allocation of oil revenues, the status of Kirkuk, Sunni participation in the government security forces, and the amount of autonomy the Kurds will retain.  Keeping a large contingent of US troops in Iraq will not help resolve them.


A major increase in the level of violence will probably ensue in Iraq once the US starts to withdraw brigades.  The slower the withdrawal, the more likely it will be that the pullout will be delayed, and the status-of-forces agreement might be altered if the Iraqi government decides it wants American combat troops to stay in country beyond 2011.  However, if US forces are withdrawn quickly it will be politically impossible for the Obama Administration to send them back and in a sense reinvade Iraq.  I am also wary of leaving behind tens of thousands of “support” troops.  Although they will ostensibly be there to train the Iraqi security forces and help them operate, the remaining soldiers could easily become engaged in combat roles if the situation deteriorates, much like the military “advisers” in Vietnam did in the 1960s. 


Supporters of a continuing military presence in Iraq argue that a full withdrawal will lead to civil war.  That may very well be the case.  But we might as well let them get it over with sooner rather than later and thereby minimize the number of American casualties.  A residual force will certainly not be able to prevent such a conflict if the Iraqis are inclined to have one, and leaving a large number of brigades there is politically untenable in the long run given the lack of support for such a policy among the American people and the Democratic Congress.  If a civil war ensues it will likely be very bloody and multifaceted with Sunnis against Shiites, Sunnis against Kurds, tribes against tribes and militias against the government.  The Saudis might intervene to support the Sunnis and the Iranians will likely step up support for the Shiites.  Such a development would certainly be unfortunate, but as Odom says “preventing it is simply not an option” for the US.  Hopefully the Iraqis will reach some sort of political accord and create a stable state without a civil war, but I am pessimistic about the prospects of that happening. 


In terms of post-withdrawal scenarios, a Shiite dominated Iraq with a largely autonomous Kurdish region would not be a bad outcome for the US because the Shiites and the Kurds won’t tolerate a Sunni Al Qaeda presence in their country.  If the Sunnis somehow manage to regain the upper hand and take control of the state one can only hope that they will not see any need to allow Al Qaeda elements to remain.


Basically, I think we should cut our losses and withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible.  We should remain politically engaged, but a continued military presence there will not resolve the outstanding issues that the Iraqis must settle themselves either through violence or a social compact.