ANY DOUBTS about whether the United States should begin to withdraw completely from Iraq's multiple internal conflicts should have been dispelled by the recent testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the Iraqi government's foray into Basra.
Neither the general nor the ambassador could say how and when American involvement will end, or why the Iraqi government is not making meaningful political progress. The best example of progress that Crocker could point to was agreement on a new national flag. General Petraeus kept repeating that the security environment was fragile, uneven, and reversible. He could not give a satisfactory answer to the question of whether the war in Iraq is making us safer.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ill-timed and ham-handed invasion of Basra showed that his dysfunctional and corrupt government is primarily interested in improving his own electoral prospects against Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Iraqi Security Forces, moreover, performed so poorly--many deserted--that the U.S. was forced to intervene in this Shia civil war to prevent Maliki's government from collapsing. In the process, U.S. forces killed hundreds of Iraqis, undermined the counterinsurgency strategy, and gave Sadr the justification to end his ceasefire. Finally, Iran enhanced its strategic position by brokering a truce between the warring Shi'ite leaders.
Yet when people argue that the U.S. should withdraw expeditiously, those like President Bush and Senator McCain who support an endless military commitment raise three objections: it cannot be done quickly; the situation will go to hell in a hand-basket when we leave; and our military commanders will oppose it. Each of these points is without merit.
There is significant disagreement and confusion over how much time is needed to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq. The debate has gravitated between supporters of a rapid, precipitous withdrawal and those calling for a long, drawn-out redeployment. Further clouding the issue are those backing an extended redeployment over several years in order to "stay the course" in Iraq, who cherry-pick logistical issues to make the case for a long-term American presence.
Supporters of immediate withdrawal are often accused of adopting a wildly unrealistic approach. This is a misplaced critique. It is possible to effect a withdrawal in as short a time as three months, if the U.S. military effectively conducts--in the words of Iraq War veteran and military analyst Phillip Carter--an "invasion in reverse."
If the Army were ordered to withdraw to Kuwait, it could do so quickly and relatively safely. Such an exit would sacrifice a significant amount of equipment and create an instantaneous political and security vacuum similar to that created by the initial overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While this option is feasible, it is not the best course of action.
But if the United States does not set a specific timetable, our military forces and our overall national security will remain hostage to events on the ground. Worse still, a startling development such as the assassination of the Ayatollah Sistani or a major sectarian attack could lead to an all-out civil war and compel our forces to withdraw in as little as three months.
Those who argue that a withdrawal will have to take place over a number of years, perhaps as many as four, base their analysis on the time it takes to complete a meticulous extraction and dismantling of all U.S. equipment and facilities. Such an extended timeline increases the danger to American forces and is not cost-effective.
The essential logistical point of disagreement between these approaches centers on the estimated value of what is to be withdrawn. All essential, sensitive, and costly equipment must be safely removed, but taking out non-vital equipment like portajohns and the arduous disassembling of facilities with no military value should not be an obstacle to redeploying our troops out of harm's way and back into the fight against terrorism. …