June 27, 2007

Phased Transition

A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq

The U.S. military will withdraw from Iraq; the question is when and under what conditions. This report will provide a realistic appraisal of America’s enduring interests in Iraq — no al Qaeda safe havens, no regional war, and no genocide — and to provide a Phased Transition plan that identifies specific steps the Bush administration can take to make these outcomes more likely while also preparing for the worst and begins planning for subsequent phases. At this dangerous moment, such realism is essential to increasing the prospects that the United States will get out of Iraq more responsibly than it got in.A Phased Transition plan is necessary for Iraq. The Bush administration should end its current “surge” of U.S. troops and launch a transition process that focuses U.S. forces on an advisory role and reduces our military presence in Iraq from approximately 160,000 today to about 60,000 by the end of 2008. At the same time that it implements the first phase, it should begin planning for subsequent phases and working to achieve a bipartisan consensus in the United States.

A key aspect of the proposed Phased Transition plan is that the United States, after consultation with the Iraqi government, would set a timeline for the accomplishment of political and security goals and for the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Setting a timeline is essential to both accelerating the “Baghdad clock” and putting more time on the “Washington clock.” If required by changes in the strategic situation, the timing of phases including final withdrawal could be delayed or accelerated, but there would be strong incentives for both Iraq and the United States to stick by a timeline once announced. Once it became clear that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s goal for Iraq shifted to transforming the Middle East by providing the “fruits of democratic governance to the region.”1 This report proposes more realistic objectives. It recommends that the United States use what leverage it still has in Iraq to maximize the probability of securing these ends:

• Preventing the establishment of al Qaeda safe havens;
• Preventing regional war; and
• Preventing genocide.

Phased Transition builds on work of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and provides a specific way to implement the group’s recommendation to reduce overall U.S. military presence in Iraq while boosting the number of advisors. Although this report focuses largely on the transitions of U.S. military forces, it is written with the understanding that the most critical steps are political and must be taken by Iraqis. As the ISG noted, “There is no action the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq.”2 The key difference with the ISG is that this report recommends establishing a specific timeline for U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, and a detailed plan for how to achieve it. During all of this plan’s phases, the United States would pursue a strategy that includes three main elements. Its “top-down” element involves continuing to press Iraq’s central government and parliament to meet specific key benchmarks such as implementation of an agreement for the sharing of oil revenue, while helping to develop Iraqi security forces. Its “bottom-up” element involves working with tribal, local, and provincial leaders to reinforce and expand positive trends in Anbar province and avoid an escalation of the conflict between Turkey and Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. And it embraces an “outside-in” element to build regional and international collaboration to increase stability in Iraq.

Although American influence in Iraq is limited amidst the ongoing insurgency and civil war, the presence and disposition of U.S. troops within the country offer essential leverage. Phased Transition would take advantage of this leverage by making America’s intention to depart Iraq explicit and credible, and by basing the transition’s contours on agreements with relevant parties in Iraq and the region.

Phased Transition involves four distinct phases, each of which is shown in Figure ES-1. In the current vernacular, Phased Transition is intended to be a new “Plan A.” Because the situation in Iraq is so tenuous, it is also critical to develop a fall back “Plan B”, and a worst case “Plan C”. Within each of these plans, the United States will have to take different approaches toward preventing al Qaeda safe havens, regional war, and genocide. Because of its complexity and because it is less a focus today than fighting al Qaeda or avoiding regional war, a specific interagency plan should also be developed to prevent or if necessary stop genocide.


  • James N. Miller

    Former CNAS Board of Advisor, President, Adaptive Strategies, LLC

    Jim Miller is President of Adaptive Strategies, LLC, which provides consulting to private sector clients on strategy development and implementation, international engagement, ...

  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he managed the center’s research agenda and staf...

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