The Post asked foreign policy experts for their views on American troops’ pullback from Iraqi cities. Below are contributions from Danielle Pletka, Daniel P. Serwer, Michael O’Hanlon, Andrew J. Bacevich and John A. Nagl.
Danielle Pletka, Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
It will be tempting to judge today’s pullback of American troops from Iraqi cities by the relative calm — or lack thereof — that ensues in its wake. That’s how al Qaeda wants the world to judge the scene, and, accordingly, the group and its allies have pulled out all the stops to step up violence on the ground. Four U.S. soldiers were killed on Monday and hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in violence across Iraq in the last week. But if that’s how we are to weigh success in Iraq, we must recognize that any significant redeployment will always be played by the enemy to look like failure.
The better questions to ask are: Did our commander on the ground make a situation-based decision to deploy per the exact letter of the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq? Or was he pressured by the administration to redeploy early from cities such as Mosul that only weeks ago appeared candidates for a go-slow approach? Are we redeploying in the interests of long-term security and stability, or are we moving troops to satisfy President Obama’s politicking with key constituencies? And, finally, are our actions making America stronger or weaker in the eyes of our adversaries?
The answers to these questions will be clear in the coming weeks. If the situation deteriorates, we will need to consider redeploying U.S. troops to restore security; if the Iraqis are game, will the president be willing? If the Iranians step up interference, will the Obama administration push back? I suspect the answer is no and that my colleague Michael Rubin is right: Obama has embraced the “anti-surge.” His definition of success will not be built on Iraqi reality, but American politics. We’ll see soon enough.
Daniel P. Serwer, Vice president for peace and stability operations, U.S. Institute of Peace.
I was in Iraq last week. The real uptick in violence is not yet having the dramatic political impact that suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices had in 2006-07. People are trying to go about their lives in a normal way, lots of business is getting done, politicians are quarreling in parliament, and there is a general sense of relief that the Americans really are withdrawing (as well a good deal of gratitude for what we have achieved, especially in the past year or so).
What is not clear is whether Iraqi security forces can handle the situation and maintain even the modicum of stability now prevailing. I am not optimistic or pessimistic: I will wait for the evidence. If the current uptick turns into a spiral — with revenge killings and attacks on politically and religiously significant targets — the Americans may need to reconsider the pullback in parts of the country. But that would only be appropriate if the Iraqi government asked for help. We would do well to be prepared to help, because we’ve got a lot at risk in Iraq. But the Iraqis need to lead.
Michael O’Hanlon, Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; former Congressional Budget Office analyst.
Violence is not increasing in a strategically significant way. There have been several spikes this year but, in retrospect, all wound up being isolated incidents. Violence levels remain 90 percent reduced relative to pre-surge levels. The country is still quite troubled, but it is no longer in the grips of civil war and is unlikely to return to that sad state. There probably have been extra efforts by extremists to use violence in these recent, momentous days, with the goal of creating a snowball effect by making Iraqi citizens worry that the change in the U.S. role is leading to a security vacuum. But this will probably wind up being seen as nothing but a tragic yet containable set of ruthless bombings, and, in fact, there is no security vacuum. There does not appear to be any ripple effect of attack followed by revenge attack followed by counterrevenge attack, so I believe the extremists are failing.
Only if broad-based sectarian conflict reignites in Iraq are we likely to have a major problem. Admittedly, that could still happen, especially next year as the U.S. drawdown really accelerates — and especially if Iraqis do not make more progress on oil laws, resolution of disputed territories, and further integration of the Sons of Iraq into government in the meantime. At that point, President Obama may have to reconsider the pace of the drawdown (if the Iraqis agree to it).
Finally, people should remember that there is nothing dramatic about June 30: The U.S. drawdown from the cities has been underway for months, and even after June 30 American forces will be able to play measured roles in urban security as required and requested.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University and author of The Limits of Power; The End of American Exceptionalism.
American interests are best served by sustaining the pretense that “the surge has worked.” By ignoring the absence of any meaningful political reconciliation among rival Iraqi factions and by pretending that Iraqis should find tolerable levels of violence that would be deemed intolerable anywhere else, the Obama administration may yet be able to extricate the United States from a war that has failed utterly: no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad.
Sadly, President Obama’s apparent inclination to go to the mat in Afghanistan suggests that his administration has little appetite to confront and to take on board the real lessons of Iraq. It is easier or at least more expeditious to confine the search for lessons to matters of tactics and technique, as if the U.S. Army’s rediscovery of counterinsurgency doctrine has redeemed “the global war on terror,” an enterprise that was unnecessary and misbegotten from the outset.
John A. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security; author of Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam; member of the writing team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The United States must draw down its presence to address other pressing challenges, most notably Afghanistan. Additionally, the lack of U.S. public support for resource-intensive nation-building projects imposes serious constraints on the U.S. commitment to Iraq, particularly at a time of economic distress. Further, the U.S. military’s freedom of action in Iraq is now proscribed under the status of forces agreement, which stipulates that all operations be carried out only by permission of and through coordination with the Iraqi government; that American troops leave Iraqi population centers for consolidated bases by the end of June 2009; and that all U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq by December 2011. The Iraqi government takes these deadlines seriously and shows no intention of modifying them, despite American proposals to remain longer in less-secure cities such as Mosul.
Yet the search for an “endgame” emphasizes a short-term objective — getting out of Iraq — and sidesteps the strategic imperative of establishing an enduring relationship with a key country in a region of vital importance to the United States. It is time for America to take the long view. Neither Iraq’s nor America’s stake in a stable, peaceful Middle East will vanish when the last American combat brigade departs. American policymakers must advance U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East through a long-term, low-profile engagement to help resolve Iraq’s internal challenges, strengthen its government and economic institutions, and integrate it as a constructive partner in the region. While shaping this new relationship will be difficult, neglecting it will have serious consequences for U.S. national security.