Getting Out: Our Strategic Interest
Charles V. Peña is an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and analyst for MSNBC. He is a co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the United States Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (Cato Institute, 2004) and author of the forthcoming Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, Inc.).
Rep. John Murtha is right when he says, “The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.” Yet the administration persists. At the American Enterprise Institute, Vice President Dick Cheney responded to Murtha, saying, “A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations, and a terrible blow to the future security of the United States of America.”
And so the official White House policy remains what it was on Veterans Day when President Bush did his best to evoke Winston Churchill: “We will never back down, we will never give in, we will never accept anything less than complete victory.”
Even if victory could somehow be achieved, it would be Pyrrhic given the costs and consequences. Moreover, it would only be a tactical victory at the expense of losing strategic position in the war on terrorism. What the Bush administration refuses to understand is that the U.S. military occupation in Iraq is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Therefore, the strategic imperative is to exit Iraq rather than stay. And although it is counterintuitive, exiting Iraq may be a prerequisite for victory.
Even if one is willing to believe President Bush’s promise of complete victory, substantially more boots on the ground are needed to have a fighting chance of achieving it. Historically, the force ratio for successful counterinsurgency operations is 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants, which is what the British—often acknowledged as the most experienced practitioners of counterinsurgency operations and demonstrably more successful than the U.S. military—deployed for more than a decade in Malaya and more than 25 years in Northern Ireland. With a population of nearly 25 million people, to meet the same standard in Iraq would require a force of 500,000 troops—more than three times the current Iraq deployment of 150,000 soldiers and equal to the size of the entire active-duty U.S. Army which has already been strained by the current Iraq deployment of 150,000 troops—for perhaps a decade or longer.
And the cost of maintaining a prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq—even for the current force that is unable to put down the insurgency—cannot be ignored. The current cost of military operations is $5.6 billion per month, which exceeds the average cost of $5.1 billion per month (in 2004 dollars) for U.S. military operations in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972. To date, the Iraq war has cost more than $200 billion. So a large-scale, long-term military occupation in Iraq will likely cost hundreds of billions more.
Of course, the difficulties and cost of attempting to secure victory are not reasons in and of themselves for throwing in the towel. But if the difficulties are viewed as insurmountable, and the costs—both in blood and treasure—deemed unbearable, then they certainly become extreme pressures exerted to craft an exit strategy, rather than continue hemorrhaging.
President Bush’s exit strategy is simple: “as Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down.” But the notion of the Iraqis themselves taking on the insurgents anytime soon amounts to wishful thinking. Although the president claims that “there are nearly 90 Iraqi army battalions fighting the terrorists alongside our forces,” the number of combat-ready Iraqi battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. or coalition assistance is only one—mysteriously down from three earlier this year. Indeed, according to General George W. Casey, Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, “Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time.” Translation: The U.S. military will have to shoulder the burden in Iraq for years.
Moreover, the Pottery Barn maxim of “you broke it, you bought it” is invoked even by those who opposed the war —largely liberal internationalists, but also by some libertarians—as a rationale against exiting Iraq, even in the face of mounting difficulties, costs and casualties. Such logic is based on the illusion that Iraq can be fixed by the United States and the result will be accepted by the Iraqis. But the lesson of nation-building in the Balkans— forcing diverse ethnic and religious groups with longstanding animosity toward each other to live together—is that whatever fix is fashioned together by the United States will only hold as long as there is a foreign military presence to enforce the outcome and will likely fracture after those troops leave, which they eventually must do if Iraq is to be considered a sovereign nation.
Ultimately, however, strategic imperative trumps Churchillian rhetoric and the Pottery Barn rule. The United States must exit Iraq because it is in our strategic interests to do so.
First and foremost, polls consistently show that the majority of Iraqi people do not want to be occupied by a foreign military. Most recently, a poll commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense showed that 82 percent of Iraqis are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops. So however well-intentioned, the U.S. military presence in Iraq breeds resentment that is fuel for the insurgency.
Second, the undeniable fact that the U.S. military is occupying a Muslim country is a powerful tool for Islamic radicals to incite anti-American sentiment—which is the stepping stone to hatred and then to violence and terrorism, not just in Iraq, but all over the world. We should not forget how the unnecessary presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War was the basis for Osama bin Laden’s hatred of the United States and one of his consistently stated reasons for engaging in terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks.
Third, despite President Bush’s oft repeated claim that “we are taking the fight to the enemy abroad so we do not have to face them here at home” as justification for staying in Iraq, the harsh reality is that the U.S. military presence in Iraq may be doing more to breed and train terrorists to fight elsewhere rather than killing them there. According to a CIA assessment, Iraq may be a more potent training and breeding ground for Islamic terrorists than Afghanistan was in the 1980s because it is a real-world laboratory for militants to hone their tradecraft in an urban combat environment. The report warned that other countries— such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia—would have to contend with the militants who leave Iraq and turn their attention to other targets. Jordan has already become an apparent victim, but there is no good reason to assume that those targets would be limited to the Middle East and that America would be immune.
The “stay the course” advocates on both the left and right counter that if U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, the country would descend into chaos and civil war. That is certainly one possible outcome. In fact, it has always been the natural outcome of removing Saddam Hussein from power, as Shiites and Kurds vie to exert control after decades of oppression while Sunnis struggle to retain power and prevent being marginalized. And it is hard to argue that what we are witnessing unfold in Iraq isn’t already a small-scale civil war—with the U.S. military potentially caught in the middle, just as it was in Lebanon in the 1980s.
But internecine conflict between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq does not inherently mean a threat to U.S. national security. True enough, the United States must be concerned that Abu Musab Al Zarqawi would take advantage of a civil war to make Iraq a base of operations. But it is clear that the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people are not welcoming Al Zarqawi with open arms the way the Taliban regime embraced bin Laden in Afghanistan. So Al Zarqawi would not be able to set up shop with impunity.
Perhaps most importantly, a civil war may actually be a tragic and unfortunate necessity. A fundamental fact that is often overlooked is that Al Qaeda's struggle is first and foremost a battle for the soul of Islam. Just as Christianity had its reformation, so too must Islam to reconcile the diversity of the Ummah rather than have a single dominant view prevail. So the real war is within the Islamic world—it is an intra-Muslim ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. Therefore, it is a war that must be waged and won by Muslims, and not a war in which the United States can prevail. In fact, the more the United States engages in the fight, the more it legitimizes the rhetoric of bin Laden and the radicals to give their insurgency greater popular support among Muslims.
More importantly, removing the United States from the equation in Iraq might take some of the wind out of the sails of the insurgency. Rather than giving common cause to Al Zarqawi and Sunni Baathists to expel the American military occupation, the insurgents might be reduced to just the likes of Al Zarqawi, whose agenda and attacks would clearly be anti-Iraqi. As a result, Iraqis—even if they are fighting among themselves for political control of the country—might find a way to unite against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
If Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, then the United States must be willing to let the Iraqis wage the war against the likes of Al Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda followers. And if Al Zarqawi is defeated, we must be willing to accept that the outcome will not likely be the democracy sought by the Bush administration or even a government that is friendly to the United States. But our strategic interests will have been served.