How to Leave Iraq — Intact

As a brigade commander in Baghdad in 2003, I befriended a resident, Adnan Abdul Sahib, who went on to serve two terms as the head of the city advisory council. In 2007, however, sectarian violence forced his family from their home in central Baghdad, and they fled the country. Last month I talked with Adnan in Colorado, where he and his family are now refugees. “The fatal mistake the United States made in Iraq,” he told me, “was to empower extreme sectarian political parties. It’s time to give the moderates a voice.”

Barack Obama has the opportunity to recast American policy toward Iraq in a meaningful way, by providing much-needed support to its political center. His administration should view the new status of forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad as a means to shape the withdrawal of our combat forces while maintaining enough leverage to guide Iraq toward a more stable future.

The assumption behind the recently concluded military surge was that substantial reductions in ethnic and sectarian violence would lead to progress on political reconciliation. The security situation has improved remarkably, and while political compromise has not followed as swiftly as we hoped, there has been some progress, especially in terms of clarifying the roles and powers of each of the country’s 18 provinces and paving the way for provincial elections early next year.

The key now is to sustain the momentum toward reconciliation, even while combat forces are withdrawn — a delicate balancing act. Although insurgent attacks have been appreciably reduced and Al Qaeda in Iraq is devastated, considerable distrust remains among various ethnic factions and religious sects and within the Iraqi government. As honest brokers, American forces keep the peace in key areas. Yet it is possible that we can complete their departure over three years, as envisioned in the status of forces agreement, assuming that the Iraqi Army has matured enough to take on added responsibilities.

Up to four brigades and their associated support — 20,000 to 25,000 troops — could be withdrawn in 2009, which would provide reinforcements for the war in Afghanistan. Withdrawals should then accelerate, as the division of power and resources is cemented locally across Iraq, with half the remaining combat forces and their associated support withdrawn in each of the following two years. By the end of 2011 — subject to Iraqi concurrence, of course — some 20,000 to 40,000 troops would remain for an extended period. These would be mainly military advisers, counterterrorist units, combat aircraft crews and support, and intelligence and logistical personnel.

Much of the stability in Iraq stems from a patchwork of agreements across the country between local leaders and the American military or the Iraqi government. To make sure that these agreements endure, the Iraqi government needs to prove to its people that it represents their interests in these ways: by ensuring adequate representation in political life of all sects and ethnicities in the political life; by incorporating a significant number of the Sons of Iraq (Sunnis who have supported the counterinsurgency) into the police forces and other government jobs; by providing tangible incentives for the return of Iraqi refugees from abroad; and by equitably distributing government funds and services to all areas of Iraq.

In this light, the provincial and national elections next year are crucial to the way ahead. That Sunni Arabs and several nonsectarian parties have decided to take part promises a more broadly representative and legitimate government. It is in the interest of both Iraq and the United States to see these elections held in a free, fair and transparent manner.

Even as we pull troops out, the United States is not without significant leverage. We provide the Iraqi armed forces needed assets, from intelligence and logistics to air support and advisers; our civilian advisers are helping to improve the efficiency of the Iraqi government; our global diplomatic leverage can help Iraq in a number of ways; and Washington can encourage business investment in Iraq, particularly in its dilapidated oil industry.

To nudge the Iraqi government in the right direction, the new administration must let it know, quietly but firmly, that the blank check given by the Bush administration is no longer in force. It should make clear that we, too, want to see the expeditious withdrawal of American combat forces, but only in a manner that ensures Iraq will not again dissolve into chaos and civil war. Long-term American diplomatic, economic and military support should be contingent on a comprehensive political solution with a fair division of power. The alternative — a sectarian Shiite government that marginalizes other sects and ethnicities and is perhaps aligned with Iran as well — is unacceptable.

Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University and the author of Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq. From February 2007 to May 2008, he was the executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq.