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August 22, 2005

Iraq Withdrawal: Whether to Set a Deadline
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Kevin asks a question now on many minds:  would we be better off setting a firm deadline for withdrawal from Iraq:

In other words, by the end of 2007 we're going to leave one way or the other. That being the case, why not announce it publicly? It would partially demotivate the insurgency by giving them a firm promise that we don't plan to occupy Iraq forever, it would help gain international support for the rebuilding effort, it would force the Iraqi government to take the training of its security forces seriously, and it would be popular with both the Iraqi and American public. What's more, it would allow the Pentagon to plan its withdrawal methodically, instead of either being caught in disastrous internal meltdown or finding itself in the middle of a savage civil war . . .

For my part, I'm partial to a plan that gradually draws down our forces based primarily (but not exclusively) on firm goals for training Iraq troops — which should be our overwhelmingly most important task, instead of the muddled excuse-making machine it apparently is today. Such a plan would most likely be based on substantive goals along the way (training, elections, etc.), but would have a hard end date of, say, December 2007.

Here are the issues I see with that logic. 

Demotivating the insurgency.  There are at least 2 scenarios in terms of what's behind the insurgency, and I have been unable to uncover definitively which is correct.  One maintains that the U.S.'s presence in Iraq is the prime motivator behind the insurgency - if we leave, it goes away.  The other suggests that while the U.S. presence is part of the picture, the insurgency is mainly a domestic political power struggle. 

Whichever it is, I don't see the insurgent fervor being dampened by an announcement of plans for a December 2007 withdrawal.  If indeed the insurgents are compelled mostly by a drive to push us out, a statement that we definitively plan to leave some 27 months hence stands a good chance of only emboldening efforts to get us out sooner by raising the human cost of staying.  Our terrorist enemies would love the feather in their cap of sending us running ahead of an orderly deadline.  If there motives are mainly political, knowing that we aren't going to stand in their way for long may encourage them to "wait us out." 

Moreover, though the Administration fervently wishes otherwise, there's an inherent contradiction between the firm end date Kevin advocates and the idea that withdrawal should be contingent on a certain level of progress in the readiness of Iraqi troops.   Particularly since we know that every aspect of rebuilding the Iraqi security forces has taken more time gone less well than hoped, how can we possibly be confident that progress will be so marked that we're free to leave by the end of 2007?  We can't, which means that by setting a firm end-date, we're saying that whether the Iraqi forces are ready or not, we're outta there.

Here is what Richard Holbrooke said based on his experience of a series of broken deadlines for US troop withdrawal from Bosnia in the 1990s:

Artificial deadlines encourage belligerents to outwait the outside intervention, delay and wait until the international community goes away, at which point they can resume doing what they had been doing before. Artificial deadlines give hope to warlords, criminals, and corrupt officials that they can outlast the international community.

His remaining remarks on the topic deal mostly with exit strategies for UN peacekeeping operations, but many of his points are equally relevant here.

If the same proves true in Iraq, the period between now and the end of phased withdrawal could prove even more deadly and miserable than the last 2 and a half years.

A fixed deadline may also raise questions along the lines of young John Kerry's famous rumination on how you ask someone to be the last to die for a mistake:  if our main focus becomes an orderly withdrawal from a failing mission, what exactly do we say to young men and women heading over to put their lives at risk? 

One answer might be that they've got the crucial job of tying up loose ends in terms of Iraq's own security capabilities.   That brings me to another of Kevin's points: that a withdrawal date would help the Iraqi authorities take "seriously" the need to train their own security forces.  My question is whether the problem right now is really the Iraqi govt's failure to take this seriously?  Surely they are not happy with a country up in flames.  My sense is that errors of focus, inadequate training, frequent attacks on recruits, lack of weaponry, etc. are hampering this effort, rather than lack of will on the part of Iraqi officials.

In terms of international support for the rebuilding effort, I likewise don't see how a timeline for US withdrawal helps.  If, as many fear, Iraq spirals downward, potential donors will fear that any additional monies committed will only go to waste.

Kevin is right that an announcement of a phased draw-down would be popular, and sounds lot better than a hasty retreat.  Juan Cole has gone a step further by suggesting that withdrawal be coupled with a commitment to continue offering close air support and other backing aimed to help Iraq stave off civil war. 

All this is not to say that we should not plan for withdrawal.  And this Administration has proffered nothing that comes close to a strategy for achieving our goals under current circumstances.   Absent such a strategy, withdrawal is preferable to continued loss of life.   If, as Juan Cole suggests, there's a way for us to get out while minimizing the risk of Iraq's becoming a failed state, so much the better.    But we won't come close to eliminating that risk entirely and, given the grave consequences of Iraq's implosion, phased withdrawal is a high risk option.

So planned withdrawal should not be off the table.   But we also shouldn't kid ourselves that leaving Iraq to its own devices is the same as solving its problems.


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Iraq "become" a failed state?

It IS a failed state.

And you neglect Kevin's larger point. We already have an end date for the occupation. The army will be broken within a year. You don't think the insurgents know this? They can read our papers as easily as we can.

But perhaps some of the denizens of can stave off this withdrawal by a few months:


Kevin asks a question now on many minds: would we be better off setting a firm deadline for withdrawal from Iraq.

Sure, if things aren't better by the end of the current millennium then we leave. How's that?

What makes you think we'll have a choice? If the region morphs from being a theater of operations to becoming a target it would be silly to hang around in the target zone.

We have X degrees of freedom to act, and it would make sense to at least allow the enemy to foreclose our freedom rather than to simply toss it on the ash heap of our own accord. When the only defense against genocide is genocide, there just are no options left. If we voluntarily allow the Ummah to became an engine of genocide, knowing what the consequences are, then we're complicit in a crime against civilivation. If the enemy simply defeats us in theater, and subsequently launches the buildup to an attact, we're at least partly devoid of blame. We did our best to stop it.

Am I being sufficiently clear? If we leave, then sooner or later, and probably sooner, Araby will just became a vast target zone rich with targets of opportunity, and we'll have no choice but to simply wipe Islam from the face of the earth. It'd be like the Thuggee genocide, only vastly increased in scale. You think we wouldn't? Au contraire!

So, like I said, I think we owe it to the "moderate muslims," like Omar on Iraq the Model, to hang around until the end of the millennium, if we can. Don't you?

Why, do you have plans to do something else?

Are you writing any of this down?

Any of it sinking in?

The threat isn't to us, it's to the 1/5th of the human race who are Muslim, get it?

And this Administration has proffered nothing that comes close to a strategy for achieving our goals under current circumstances. Absent such a strategy, withdrawal is preferable to continued loss of life.

So far, less than 2,000 American military personnel have lost their lives, to which you can add the victims of 9-11. All tolled (ignoring that silly Lancet article) we can account maybe 5,000 allied dead and another 20,000 Iraqi and Afghani (give or take a thousand).

During the American Civil War almost one million American military lost ther lives, and several million more were catastrophically injured. This doesn't include the civilian loss of life, during events like the "Burning of Atlanta" or "Sherman's March to the Sea."

And this loss was not even to deter or counter an attack. It was simply for the sake of the freedom of a few million people of African discent who woren't even considered citizens at the time, and were barely considered human.

So, when we've lost a million soldiers maybe we should consider leaving. And if the enemy saw that we had that kind of resolve they wouldn't even consider continuing the fight. So your talk of quitting is actually encouraging a perpetual insurgency.

Nice going.

Again, it isn't we who are threatened. It's the 20% of the human race who are Muslim that are in dire jeapardy of extinction. And it might actually help if someone told them about that situation. Like you, for instance.

Why, do you have other plans?

If indeed the insurgents are compelled mostly by a drive to push us out, a statement that we definitively plan to leave some 27 months hence stands a good chance of only emboldening efforts to get us out sooner by raising the human cost of staying.

I suspect the idea that we could 'embolden the insurgents' is nonsense, for several reasons:

1) They're probably doing the best they can right now

2) Over 90% of them are Iraqis who are not going anywhere. As Angryman said, the insurgents know they can 'wait us out' because our army can't maintain its current force level beyond 2006.

3) Unlike us -- the insurgents appear to be able to easily replace their losses no matter how many of them we capture or kill. The idea that we can dampen down the insurgency before we go seems a matter of faith at this point.

On the other hand, we've already seen evidence that the foreign fighters and the Iraqi insurgents don't get along, so announcing a withdrawal has a chance of splitting the resistance. What do we have to lose?

In any case, General Vines thinks it might be a good idea:

"Part of the recruitment for this insurgency is fueled by the perception that we are an occupying power and have no intention of leaving," Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of the Multinational Corps, said in a recent interview. "I think we need to make it clear that we intend to draw down, and we intend to drawn down relatively soon, and we have no aspirations here."


I agree with your main point (though not with some of your spelling) that it is the people in Iraq, and the Middle East in general, who are most directly threatened by chaos in Iraq. Pulling US forces out of Iraq will most likely lead to chaos. However I don't see why the enemy will not dare to continue fighting if US forces are there indefinitely. The enemy, the terrorists, the fundamentalist muslims, the hard-line discontented Sunnis, the separationist Kurds, will keep fighting regardless of what the US does until they have a reason not to fight.

All the presence of US forces seem to accomplish is the moderation of anarchic civil warfare. This is a good, perhaps even noble, accomplishment which helps many innocent people and should not be dismissed; but it does not seem to be leading towards a long-range peace-- the US volunteer army will lose a war of attrition in Iraq.

I also feel compelled to point out that the primary
purpose of the American civil war was not to free black slaves. The north fought the war to keep the country intact while the south fought to maintain their economy (which depended upon slave labor); and both of these issues were of primary importance to the people involved in the fighting.

Leave but promise to continue to provide close air support to the host nation in an increasingly unpopular and expensive war? Gee, then Iraq would really be just like Vietnam.

The plan/strategy has been the same for some time now, basically train the Iraqi's; however, it takes time. In a 24 hour news cycle saying it'll take 24 months to really start seeing progress just means the media reports things as a failure or quagmire. The Commander in Chief keeps saying we're staying untill that job is done. Presumedly at some point we might have 250,000+ trained Iraqi's but find they are not motivated to do the job and then that would be a total failure.

It sure would be nice if one day the press actually waits for the failure prior to reporting it. We've been in Iraq for around 30 months and lost 1,400 brave Americans in combat (1,800 includes accidents). During the UN sponsored Korean Conflict the US lost 38,000 killed in about 38 months. While every death is a tragedy, especially to that family, the nation needs it's press to gain some perspective.

If Iraq has a 2nd and 3rd peacefull democratic transition of power and inspires other nations toward aspirations of democracy then it will have been well worth the price and if lapses into a non democratic state then the mission will have been a failure, period. In other words it's not a story that fits within the daily news cycle.

Leave but provide air support? Firstly, the ability to call in air support is a complex military skill that when Iraqi units can do this on their own they will be almost by definition well trained and equipped. At that point it does not matter who or what is orbiting overhead with a JDAM. Secondly, air support for an insurgency is wildly overated. Lastly, can we please not go down the we'll just provide air support fantasyroad?

Politically air support stands for a lack of political will as far as the US is concerned. On a real world practical level we are not going to commit pilots to a series of missions without our own combat search and rescue units standing by. It's extremely doubtfull we could rely only on Iraqi's for forward air control. Modern warfare is not one dimensional. There really is not any such thing as "airpower". Modern "airpower" is paradoxically even more dependant on ground troops to find and identify targets.


Suzanne -

"So planned withdrawal should not be off the table. But we also shouldn't kid ourselves that leaving Iraq to its own devices is the same as solving its problems."

...i have stated before that i believe we illegally destroyed iraq for its oil: a priori, the administration does not give one whit for solving iraq's problems, only its own.

even if my contention is not true, the only way iraq stabilizes is for the US to occupy it for the foreseeable future. whether we do that or not depends largely on whether rove thinks it's in the gop's best interests in 2006/8 to do so.

It's useful to put Dick Holbrooke's observation about setting withdrawal deadlines that Suzanne sagely quotes in their context: In the Balkans. In a peacekeeping context. After the combatants had fought themselves to exhaustion for 3 years and grudgingly signed onto a peace deal. In Europe, where British/French/German/Italian and US forces were not alien, but representatives of a community that all but the most rabid and deranged nationalists aspired to join.

The Iraqi reality is different, and the decision on how long to stay to prop up the new Baghdad government has to be fine-tuned to Iraqi realities. There may be relevant lessons from the efforts by outside powers to nurture a favorable political process in the face of local recalcitrance in other settings, where decisions against deadlines have had varying results: South Korea (1950-present), South Vietnam (1965-73), Lebanon (1982-84), and, on the Soviet side, Afghanistan (1979-89).

I suggest another way to address the deadline problem at

Thanks, Jeff, for placing the concept of setting deadlines in a larger historical context.

Has anyone here read the draft Constitution? It reads a lot better than I thought it would. The drawdown business relates to next summer at the earliest. The Constitution deserves discussion now.

It is important to US prestige that we not set a deadline for withdrawal.

If we set a deadline for withdrawal, and then we start losing so badly we have to withdraw sooner, we will look bad. It will be very hard to pretend that we didn't plain lose.

So we must leave it open when we'll leave. The damage to our self-esteem from a deadline is just too much.

I don't think our prestige and self-esteem should be a factor in this. One doesn't kill for the sake of pride.
I appreciate Demosophist's reminder that this war isn't just about us. We part ways over his underlying assumption (I infer) that the Bush administration has a goal in mind beyond platitudes ,has the will to stay until the goal is reached, and the competence to carry out a plan.
The Bush administration's lack of competence in the handling of Iraqi affairs is so obvious that even conservative commentators have acknowledged it. His administration has done nothing except exacerbate and/or create difficulties in Iraq and I don't think there is the slightest chance that a suddend outbreak of competence will emerge.
I don't think the Bush has the will to carry out a long term committment, either. To do so would mean a draft, starting in about three years. There is no way that they will go to the public with the bad news that success means a draft, especially not in a Presidential election year. And yet staying the course will mean a draft--our military forces can't stretch indefinately and success in any kind of real terms isn't going to happen in the next year or so.
Defining success is usually something that is done before the war starts. Lincoln defined success as preserving the union, for example. FDR wanted to drive Japan and Germany back to their pre-war boundaries and stop their attacks on other countries. Bush's problem with Iraq is that his definition of the goals and therefore definition of success has changed repeatedly so now no one, least of all Bush himself knows what we are trying to achieve or how to tell if we have achieved it. That's why his support on the war is down to 38% --those are the folks who can't tell a policy from a platitude and are willing to fight for such nebulous slogans as "fighting terrorism". The rest of us want to know what, exactly, we are killing for.
This is a fuckup that goes well beyond the injury defeat does to national vanity. I wish we had a parliamentary system because we can't expect reasonalbe responisble policies, carried in a competent manner to happen under the Bush administration. Under this administration, unfortunately, our continued presence isn't likely to be any better than our sudden absence.
The one thing that we all must do, come the next couple of election cycles, is punish all politicians who continue to cling to the fantasy that the ivasion was a good idea. Reasonable people can disagree about what to do now but anyone still defending the initial invasion is out of their mind.

Mycat, we *are* killing for prestige and self-esteem. For example, if you look at Suzanne's Top Ten list of reasons we have to win in iraq, #3, 6, and 10 are purely about US prestige while #8 and 9 are precisely about our self-esteem.

I believe a big part of the problem is that we've developed a strongly codependent government. The main thing that matters for success is loyalty to Bush, and they're having trouble finding competence in that. So, the CPA might have been no more incompetent and corrupt than the americans who ran japan after WWII, but the japanese were really defeated -- they were happy that we weren't raping all the women -- and they put up with it better. And when we got rid of the name of the CPA, we left american "advisors" in each office of the iraqi government who were supposed to show the iraqis how to do things, and we appointed people who had ultimate authority that the iraqis were not allowed to fire for 5 years. I wonder how that's going. It's entirely in the Green Zone. Do we still have the top decision makers in the iraqi government stuck in the Green Zone where they can't tell what's going on? They might as well be in DC....

Our top military guys had to be chosen from the ones who wouldn't resign rather than follow Rumsfeld's or Cheney's orders. So they aren't the brightest stars in the pentagon.

Parliamentary systems have their own problems. I think we might do better with something like IRV voting. The last five elections I've voted for the 2nd-worst candidate hopingto keep the worst one from being elected, and I'm tired of it. I want the chance to vote for everybody but the worst candidate.

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