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National Affairs: Getting Out of Iraq

The war is lost. The only remaining question is not how to win the war, but how to end it

U.S. Army soldiers, Iraq, war

U.S. Army soldiers salute during a memorial service for Sgt. Robert Tucker at a military base October 18th, 2005 in Dujail, Iraq.

John Moore/Getty

GEORGE BUSH IS JUST ABOUT THE ONLY PERSON in Washington these days who doesn’t know that the United States has lost the war in Iraq. ”We’re never going to back down, we’re never going to give in, we’ll never accept anything less than total victory,” Bush declared in mid-October.

But in the rest of Washington, including the Pentagon, nearly everyone else is thinking about exit strategies. Public support for the war has fallen to an all-time low. Top U.S. generals in Iraq are telling anyone who’ll listen that the war has no military solution and are quietly floating ideas to shrink the American occupation. Sen. John Kerry, who spent all of last year waffling on Iraq, now calls for the immediate withdrawal of 20,000 troops and says ”our military presence in vast and visible numbers has become part of the problem, not the solution.” More than sixty members of Congress have joined the Out of Iraq Caucus, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, charges that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and needs to ”start figuring out how we get out of there.”

The dilemma now facing the United States is not how to win the war in Iraq but how to end it. The disastrous occupation has left Iraq teetering on the brink of all-out civil war. The country’s new constitution has succeeded only in solidifying ethnic and sectarian rivalries. The anti U.S. insurgency is growing, and some cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been transformed into training grounds for Al Qaeda-style terrorists. And the conflict in Iraq threatens to spill over its borders, drawing Iran, Turkey and the Arab world into a bloody regional conflict.

”The key word in ‘exit strategy’ is not ‘exit’ but ‘strategy,”’ said Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, At a recent congressional hearing, Cleland warned that the United States must plan its withdrawal before U.S. forces have to pile into helicopters and beat a hasty retreat from a besieged Green Zone in Baghdad. ”We need an exit strategy that we choose or it will certainly be chosen for us,” Cleland said. ”I’ve seen this movie before. I know how it ends.”

THE PRIMARY ARGUMENT AGAINST pulling out of Iraq is that without the continued presence of American troops, the country will become a stronghold for Islamic militants — and perhaps even Al Qaeda. With the president of Iran calling for Israel to be ”wiped off the map,” and with the family of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad implicated in an assassination in Lebanon, the Middle East is a tough neighborhood, the Bush administration argues — one that requires the firm hand of an American presence. ”State sponsors like Syria and Iran have a long history of collaboration with terrorists,” Bush said. ”This enemy considers every retreat of the civilized world as an invitation to greater violence. In Iraq, there is no peace without victory.”

But much of America’s foreign-policy establishment — including many national security hard-liners and ultraconservatives — says the Bush administration has the equation backward: The presence of American troops is increasing, rather than averting, the danger in Iraq. Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan and now a senior fellow with the far-right Hudson Institute, is circulating a paper titled ”What’s Wrong With Cutting and Running?” Point by point, Odom demolishes objections to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. ”There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave,” he writes. ”But that will happen no matter how long we stay.”

The longer the U.S. remains in Iraq, Odom argues, the more Iraq will become a haven for radical-Islamic terrorism — and the more Iran will exercise influence over the fundamentalist Shiite regime that Washington is propping up in Baghdad. Standing outside the U.S. Capitol, Odom tells me that the administration should move swiftly to withdraw. If ordered to do so by the White House, he says, the Pentagon could provide a blueprint for a feasible exit plan ”in two or three weeks.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hard-liner who served as national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, also believes that it is time to declare victory and withdraw. ”The sooner we can get out, the better,” Brzezinski says. ”We could use some opportunity in the short term to say that we have accomplished our main purpose in Iraq and start a serious process of disengagement.”

Those who favor a quick exit point out that withdrawing will actually go a long way toward satisfying the demands of the warring factions in Iraq. The Sunni population that provided the base of Saddam’s support — including the current leaders of the Iraqi resistance — would be more likely to participate in the political process if the United States pulls out, providing a counterbalance to the theocratic and paramilitary Shiite parties who currently control Iraq’s fledgling government. That, in turn, would reduce Iran’s influence in Baghdad, where the Iranian-backed Badr Corps is keeping the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in power. And once the U.S. occupation ends, most analysts believe, the ability of Al Qaeda to attract recruits will largely evaporate, since it is the anger over the presence of American troops in Iraq that provides Al Qaeda with its best sales pitch.

To those who argue that Iraq would be plunged into deeper chaos and even fullscale civil war if the U.S. leaves, Brzezinski says that the Shiites, who control Iraq’s southern region, and the Kurds, who govern the mountainous north, would be able to defend themselves without U.S. troops. ”They would not necessarily be taken over by this Al Qaeda threat that the president so much pumps up,” he says. In fact, the main force of the Iraqi resistance fighting the United States is drawn not from Al Qaeda but from the former Iraqi army and Republican Guard, which dissolved after the war. Many insurgents are also what Iraq experts call POls, or ”pissed-off Iraqis” mostly Sunni Arabs who hate the idea that Iraq is occupied by U.S. troops.

WHAT WOULD AN IRAQ EXIT strategy look like? To facilitate the process, the United States could halt offensive operations in Iraq, return its forces to defensible positions outside the combat zones and make it clear that it has no long-term desire to stay in Iraq. Based on extensive discussions with U.S. diplomats, military and intelligence officials and foreign-policy experts, getting out of Iraq would involve three distinct steps:

SET A DATE. Even some of those who favor a quick exit from Iraq argue that announcing a timetable would give the insurgents an advantage, enabling them to lielow until the United States leaves. In fact, the reverse could be true: Setting a precise date might force squabbling Iraqi factions to settle their differences rather than to rely on U.S. troops to solve their disputes. ”For better or worse, the United States has to step back and let Iraqis do it themselves.” argues Wayne White, who served as a senior intelligence official on Iraq until last spring.

As the situation in Iraq worsens, the idea of establishing a timetable is gaining favor in Washington. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, says it is time for ”a proposed target date to have the troops come home.” In the House. a bipartisan resolution with more than sixty cosponsors asks the president to initiate a withdrawal ”as soon as possible, but not later than October 1st, 2006.”

”The word ‘timetable’ is anathema to some people,” says Larry Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense under Reagan. But in a detailed exit plan he co-authored for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Korb calls on the Pentagon to with draw 80,000 troops in 2006 and 60,000 more in 2007, leaving only a residual force to protect the U.S. Embassy. Others want to accelerate that schedule. The liberal Institute for Policy Studies calls for a unilateral cease-fire and an immediate cut in U.S. force levels, while the Project on Defense Alternatives, a leftleaning research group, calls its exit plan ”400 Days and Out.”

NEGOTIATE WITH THE ENEMY: Long overdue, say many critics of the war, is a U.S. effort to negotiate with the other side — not with radical Islamists tied to Al Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq but with the dozen or so groups that make up the main force of the Iraqi resistance. ”There is a whole rainbow of armed groups, including organizations that are tired of fighting and want to make a deal,” says White, the former intelligence official. ”The only way wars end is when you talk to the enemy.”

Aiham al-Sammarae, who served as a minister in the Iraqi interim government last year, has created the National Assembly for the Unity and Reconstruction of Iraq, establishing contact with at least eleven Iraqi resistance groups who want to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for an American withdrawal. By telephone from Amman, Jordan, al-Sammarae tells Rolling Stone that he has been privately encouraged by midlevel officials at the State Department to pursue such talks. According to former State Department officials, U.S. diplomats and military and intelligence officers in Iraq have also been talking to resistance leaders for the past six months. Yet those efforts have been undertaken on an almost freelance basis, without the administration’s support.

”The reality is, you’ve got to talk,” says retired Gen. Joseph Hoar, chief of the U.S. Central Command during the first Bush administration. ”But this administration is so fucking stupid. They’ve pissed in the soup.” Hoar believes that Jordan’s King Abdullah could play a role as intermediary among the United States, the Iraqi interim governrnent and the resistance. Amman, which has already served as a neutral staging ground for talks between the Iraqi opposition and U.S. officials, could host a regional peace conference to end the war in Iraq. The Russian government has been calling for such a conference for more than a year. ”We have favored the idea of bringing in the Iraqi opposition — the patriotic, nationalist opposition,” says a spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations. ”We are not talking about the jihadists, but the legitimate nationalist forces.”

INTERNATIONALIZE THE EFFORT. Nearly everyone involved in trying to extricate the United States from Iraq wants to involve the United Nations, Europe and Russia in helping to broker a settlement. ”You need the international community to cover your rear end as you get out,” says Cleland, the former senator. Wesley Clark, a retired general who served as supreme allied commander in Europe, blasts the White House for putting the burden of the crisis in Iraqon the armed forces. ”Why are you putting all this on the military?” he asks. ”You and your neocons, you and Dick Cheney, you got us into this. You’ve got to think about diplomacy.”

According to Clark, the United States needs to involve Syria’s President al-Assad and the rest of Iraq’s neighbors in talks. ”It’s in the interest of all these countries to want us to leave,” Clark says. ”They don’t want a big conflict in the region.” Even Iran, which is building up influence in Iraq, might stop its meddling for a broader deal over its own nuclear program, trade and economic development. ”The two countries we most need the help of are Syria and Iran,” says Chas Freeman, ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. ”But instead of trying to involve them, we’re upping the ante by confronting them” — a policy that is likely to widen the conflict rather than shrink it.

WITHDRAWING U.S. FORCES FROM IRAQ, of course, is complicated by America’s seemingly insatiable demand for fossil fuels. With oil reserves that may prove to be as large as Saudi Arabia’s, Iraq will be at the epicenter of the global struggle over petroleum for the next half century. Iraq’s oil wealth undoubtedly figured into the White House’s calculus when it decided to invade — and for former oil executives like Bush and Cheney, the prospect of giving up control of Iraq must seem like relinquishing a hard-won prize.

But whoever runs Iraq after the United States leaves — whether Shiite radicals, Sunni nationalists, Iraqi military men or a democratic government Iraq will have no choice but to sell its oil on the world market. In reality, the only thing that can prevent the world from having ready access to Iraqi oil is continued instability or civil war — the very conditions exacerbated by the ongoing presence of American troops. The surest way to keep the oil flowing — and the surest road to economic growth and prosperity for the people of Iraq — is to bring the troops home.

Bush continues to insist on staying the course in Iraq — but if history is any indication, reality will ultimately prevail over fantasy. Perhaps former Secretary of State James Baker, Sen. John Warner and a team of wise men, such as those who approached Lyndon Johnson in 1968 after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, will persuade Bush to change course in Iraq and to adopt some version of an exit strategy, Perhaps the U.S. military, deeply unhappy with its mission in Iraq, will prevail on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to talk sense to the White House. Or perhaps Karl Rove, concerned about Iraq’s effect on Republican prospects at the polls next fall, will advise Bush to end the war. Such scenarios may seem unlikely at the moment, given Bush’s rhetoric. But unless the United States is prepared to remain in Iraq until a new president takes office in 2009 — suffering thousands more in casualties and hundreds of billions more in costs — then it will be President George W. Bush who one day signs the executive order telling American forces to come home and leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

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