July 30, 2009 — In a memo that has been made public by The Times, Col. Timothy Reese, a senior American military adviser in Baghdad, calls “for the U.S. to declare victory and go home.” He argues that Iraqi forces are competent enough to handle internal threats to their government, and that extending the American military presence in Iraq beyond 2010 could fuel a growing resentment. Indeed, Colonel Reese, an author of an official Army history of the Iraq war, suggests that U.S. troops be withdrawn by August 2010, 15 months ahead of schedule.
A spokeswoman for Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior American commander in Iraq, said that the memo, which was written in early July, did not reflect the official stance of the U.S. military.
Although Colonel Reese’s stance might not be an official one, we asked some experts whether his view made sense.
Kori Schake, U.S. Military Academy professor
John Nagl, Center for a New American Security
Douglas Macgregor, retired colonel and author
Jonathan Morgenstein, captain, Marine Corps Reserves
Stephen Biddle, Council on Foreign Relations
Thomas E. Ricks, author
Contrarian, and Wrong
Kori Schake, a former national security adviser on defense issues to President George W. Bush, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of international security studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She is the author of “Managing American Hegemony.”
I’m glad to see General Odierno is getting such contrarian advice — it speaks to the command climate he’s created in Iraq that his advisers feel this unconstrained in their criticism. But there are four problems with Colonel Reese’s analysis:
For starters, it’s a very emotional reaction to the Iraqi government’s current triumphalism, which makes me cautious about adopting the colonel’s proposals as strategy. That the Maliki government takes all the credit and gives us all the blame merely puts them in the mainstream of America’s allies. They are taking responsibility for an increasing share of securing their own country and that’s ultimately the test of their and our success.
Reese significantly undervalues the benefits of stabilizing Iraqi progress.
Second, Colonel Reese admits that we continue to improve Iraqi security forces but does not provide a persuasive justification for his conclusion that they’re strong enough and we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense continues to say they want American troops in Iraq for another five years. It doesn’t just matter that we think so, as with Korea and other American allies clearly strong enough to manage their own security, their confidence to do so is a crucial part of their willingness to do so.
Third, the memo does no analysis of the consequences to the course of action Colonel Reese suggests. He says blithely, “Iraq may well collapse into chaos of other causes” as though that’s an adequate outcome. It is not. The predictability of American involvement guaranteed to Iraqis in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) may well be causing them to game our timeline, but it is beneficial to stabilize their progress and he significantly undervalues that.
And finally, “declaring victory” doesn’t make it true. The enemy gets a vote, as Gen. James Mattis, the Joint Forces commander, instructs. Departing in advance of the SOFA would revivify the Al Qaeda narrative of defeating us.
Letting Go Is Never Easy
John Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security. A retired Army officer who fought in Iraq, he is the author of “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S, Security Relationship with Iraq.”
Colonel Reese’s memo, coming on the heels of a number of brusque Iraqi measures to curtail U.S. forces’ freedom of action in their country, shines light on the current American conundrum in Iraq: learning to let go.
The pace of progress in Iraq will be slow, but we can’t throw up our hands and walk away.
Iraq is increasingly demonstrating its sovereignty, and U.S. troops are working through the process of disengaging from a leading role in security operations to adopting an advising and support role. This is hard; the U.S. military is used to being in the position of driving, not observing and shaping, events in Iraq. For many Iraqis, the U.S. presence understandably remains synonymous with the humiliation of occupation, a sentiment that long fueled the insurgency and factored heavily into Prime Minister Maliki’s “celebration” of the June 30 American withdrawal from Iraqi cities.
As the United States continues the long process of extricating itself from a direct military role in Iraq, there are going to be many harrowing moments along the way. The pace of progress in Iraqi governance and reconciliation will be frustratingly slow, and it will not always go in accordance with American wishes.
But throwing up our hands in exasperation and walking away is not the answer. Iraq still needs substantial American support to defeat internal threats, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to deter external threats.
Just last week, Prime Minister Maliki opened the door toward requesting a renegotiated Status of Forces Agreement in order to maintain American advisers in Iraq past the current withdrawal date of Dec. 31, 2011; he recognizes that the Iraqi Air Force, in particular, will still need American help to maintain control of Iraqi airspace after that date. A continued American advisory presence is in our interest as well, as we work to maintain security and stability in Iraq and throughout the region. Letting go is a hard, difficult process - but doing so gradually and responsibly is the best way to protect out hard-earned gains in Iraq and secure our national interest.
Leave Now, Not Later
Douglas Macgregor is a retired colonel and a partner in Potomac League LLC. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming, “Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.”
Colonel Reese is saying what most soldiers under the rank of three stars know and think is the right course of action — leave Iraq sooner, rather than later. Colonel Reese is sounding the alarm that if we do not take the opportunity to leave now, we are in for a new round of pointless violence directed at American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Iraq.
It’s time to reverse America’s decision to garrison Iraq, a serious strategic mistake.
Large-scale American military occupations of non-Western societies to transform them into images of the West inevitably provoke resentment and breed violence; even when the U.S. pays $25 million a month in hard cash to the Sunni Arab insurgent forces not to fight.
Exporting democracy at gunpoint to Iraq has not only failed to create stability in the Middle East, it has made the United States and its allies less secure. Today, Iranian strategic influence trumps American strategic influence for good reason: Tehran’s agents of influence wear an indigenous face while America’s agents wear foreign uniforms and carry guns.
America’s decision to garrison Iraq was a serious strategic mistake. It’s time to reverse that mistake and, as Colonel Reese wisely argues, leave now, not later.
What I Saw
Jonathan Morgenstein is a senior national security policy fellow at Third Way, a think tank in Washington. A captain in the Marine Corps Reserves, he returned from Iraq in April where he was a military transition team adviser to the Iraqi Army.
Colonel Reese’s assessment that we should exit sooner than planned ignores the wide variety of both security conditions in Iraq and the capabilities of the country’s armed forces. A December 2011 time frame will ensure a U.S. withdrawal with minimum casualties and maximum Iraqi stability.
Some Iraqi troops are still being trained and they could use more time with U.S. mentors.
During my first Marine Corps tour in Anbar Province in 2004 and 2005, every day it seemed a soldier or Marine was wounded or killed. But during my tour this year, I cannot recall one single U.S. troop wounded or killed by enemy forces within my area of operations in Anbar. Part of this was because Iraqis conducted about 90 percent of all actions in the area. Indeed, a few Iraqis were wounded, but the Iraqi Army showed itself capable of handling most of the threats likely to re-emerge in the province. They appreciated the U.S. support, but most Iraqi soldiers I worked with indicated that they didn’t think the Americans were needed.
Nevertheless, insurgent and militia elements haven’t yet been defeated nationwide as they have been in Anbar. In fact, a little over a year ago, entire Iraqi brigades of more than a thousand soldiers were nearly destroyed by Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra. Only a redeployment of extremely capable Iraqi troops based out of Anbar, plus American and British reinforcements, prevented Sadr’s victory.
New Iraqi brigades have since been created in the south. They are still being trained and hopefully they soon will be on par with the Iraqi Army forces in Anbar. In the end, the Iraqi Army should be fine, but especially for new units, more time with U.S. mentors is useful and important.
Peacekeeping, Not Training
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle.”
Rapid withdrawal from Iraq would be a mistake. Of course, Iraq is a sovereign nation; if they ask us to leave we should. But we should not encourage a faster withdrawal than necessary.
This is because Iraq is still in the early stages of a negotiated end to an intense ethno-sectarian civil war of identity. Settlements of such wars usually require long term peacekeeping missions to stabilize them, as we saw in the Balkans. And this is the primary requirement for U.S. troops in Iraq today –- not training and mentoring Iraqi Security Forces, but peacekeeping to stabilize a still-tenuous ceasefire.
Foreign troops may not be loved, but they provide an essential stability function in such an environment.
It is unrealistic to suppose that the intense intercommunal fears that fueled Iraq’s violence have simply vanished this quickly. Such tensions normally subside slowly and gradually over time. In the meantime, an outside peacekeeping presence can damp escalatory spirals from spoiler violence, enforce ceasefire terms, and reassure nervous communities that they will not be victimized by rivals.
It is often hard for locals to trust the government’s military with these functions in the immediate aftermath of civil warfare; foreign troops may not be loved, but they provide an essential stability function in such an environment. Draw-downs are still possible (and essential), but ideally they should be slow, gradual, and quiet so as to avoid sparking fears of abandonment by threatened internal subcommunities.
I hope that Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, and Kurds can transition peacefully from the warfare of the past to a stable future without a foreign military presence. But to expect this to be possible just two years after the war’s bloodiest phase without outside peacekeeping requires an enormous leap of faith. And the results matter, both for Iraqis and for Americans, chaos in the heart of the Persian Gulf is in no one’s interest.
Mission Not Accomplished
Thomas E. Ricks is author of two books about the Iraq war, “Fiasco” and “The Gamble.” He currently is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog, The Best Defense.
Colonel Reese’s suggestion for a speedier withdrawal is appealing. And he is good in listing everything that is going wrong. Reading his lists, you’d almost think the situation in Iraq is unraveling.
The question the colonel’s memo begs is just how bad it gets after we leave, and whether Turkey, Iran and others intervene more than they have already. What are the chances of a regional war? Feeling lucky, punk? Well, are you?
What happens after we leave? How do we mitigate the damage done? I really don’t see how hanging a “mission accomplished” banner would work any better for the Obama Administration than it did for the Bush Administration.