400 DAYS AND OUT: A STRATEGY FOR EXITING IRAQ
by Carl Conetta
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- The United States could safely withdraw almost all its forces from Iraq within a year or so without further destabilizing the country, according to a July 19 proposal I authored for the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), a Washington-based think-tank. Progress toward that end requires a significant political compromise with the Sunni community and with Iraq's neighbors, however.
The new proposal, entitled 400 days and out, follows an earlier PDA report, Vicious Circle, which found that American military operations in Iraq were generating substantial support for the insurgency.
In recent months, the idea that the Iraq occupation has become counter-productive has inspired several Members of Congress to offer withdrawal proposals. The PDA proposal goes a step further to address the "withdrawal dilemma."
Although essential, troop withdrawal will not defuse the insurgency entirely. Some elements will fight on. Also, the conflict has gained an inter-communal aspect, Sunni versus Shia, which may persist or grow worse. Finally, the immediate positive impact of announcing a withdrawal time-line may not prove sufficient to allow a major shift of resources to the training of Iraqi security forces, which every withdrawal proposal views as key. So how do we create the initial "strategic space" to begin withdrawing troops confidently, while also shifting resources to training? This is the dilemma. The challenge is to "jump start" the de-escalation process.
The answer, according to the PDA proposal, is to seek political compromise with the Sunni community at all levels and with Iraq's neighbors - especially Syria and Iran. The aim would be to immediately reduce both active and passive support for the insurgency, both inside and outside the country. "Practically speaking, the goal is to thoroughly isolate the foreign fighters and diehard Hussein loyalists," says Conetta.
The necessary concessions would be a return to local governance in Sunni areas, a guaranteed level of representation for all provinces in the national assembly, an end to broad-brush measures of de-Baathification, an amnesty for most indigenous insurgents and for most former Baathists, and a de-escalation of the U.S. confrontation with Syria and Iran. These political measures would be mated with a troop withdrawal time-line and some initial withdrawals.
The proposal sees Iran's cooperation as especially important to gaining the assent of the Jaafari government. It views Syria and Saudi Arabia as similarly important with regard to the Sunni community.
These policy changes are not contrary to the mission goals of achieving stability, democracy, and security in Iraq, and they would allow withdrawal, training, and reconstruction to proceed. The 400-day withdrawal timeline that PDA proposes is pegged to Iraqi troop training cycles. After Sept. 1, 2006, a relatively small international military force would remain inside Iraq for monitoring and training purposes, under NATO command and UN auspices.
The PDA proposal comes just one week after the leak of a secret memo signed by British Defense Minister John Reid disclosing an option to withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq by mid-2006. I see little hope for progress in the Reid memo, however.
It describes a contingency plan - nothing more - and it fails to specify how the plan might be achieved. Pentagon planning apparently assumes, against all evidence, that continuing on the present course will eventually lead to improved conditions. I would speculate that the leaking of the memo is most likely a public relations maneuver meant to mollify critics. The Administration plan offers a pocket-full of conditionals but lacks what the process most needs: bold new steps - including some initial withdrawals - beginning now.
Carl Conetta works with the Project on Defense Alternatives at their Washington-area office. The PDA is a project of the Commonwealth Institute of Cambridge, Mass., an independent,non-profit non-governmental public policy research center fopcused on critical international security issues. Visit the PDA at http://www.comw.org/pda.