Time for An Iraq Timetable

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By Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Saturday, November 26, 2005

The question most Americans want answered about Iraq is this: When will our troops come home?

We already know the likely answer. In 2006, they will begin to leave in large numbers. By the end of the year, we will have redeployed about 50,000. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 will follow. A small force will stay behind -- in Iraq or across the border -- to strike at any concentration of terrorists.

That is because we cannot sustain 150,000 Americans in Iraq without extending deployment times, sending soldiers on fourth and fifth tours, or mobilizing the National Guard. Even if we could, our large military presence -- while still the only guarantor against a total breakdown -- is increasingly counterproductive. A liberation has become an occupation.

There is another critical question: As our soldiers redeploy, will our security interests in Iraq remain intact or will we have traded a dictator for chaos?

There is a broad consensus on what must be done to preserve our interests. Recently, 79 Democratic and Republican senators told President Bush we need a detailed, public plan for Iraq, with specific goals and a timetable for achieving each one.

Over the next six months, we must forge a sustainable political compromise between Iraqi factions, strengthen the Iraqi government and bolster reconstruction efforts, and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces.

First, we need to build political consensus, starting with the constitution. Sunnis must accept that they no longer rule Iraq. But unless Shiites and Kurds give them a stake in the new deal, they will continue to resist. We must help produce a constitution that will unite Iraq, not divide it.

Iraq's neighbors and the international community have a huge stake in the country's future. The president should initiate a regional strategy -- as he did in Afghanistan -- to leverage the influence of neighboring countries. And he should establish a Contact Group of the world's major powers -- as we did in the Balkans -- to become the Iraqi government's primary international interlocutor.

Second, we must build Iraq's governing capacity and overhaul the reconstruction program. Iraq's ministries are barely functional. Sewage in the streets, unsafe drinking water and a lack of electricity are all too common. With 40 percent unemployment in Iraq, insurgents do not lack for fresh recruits.

We need a civilian commitment equal to our military effort. Just as military personnel are required to go to Iraq, the president should identify more skilled foreign service officers to help.

This should not be their burden alone. Britain proposed that individual countries adopt ministries. It's a good idea that we should pursue. We must redirect reconstruction contracts away from multinationals and to Iraqis.

Countries that have pledged aid must deliver it. So far, only $3 billion of the $13.5 billion in non-American aid has made it to Iraq. And the president should convene a conference of our Gulf allies. They have reaped huge windfall oil profits -- it's time they gave back.

The third goal is to transfer authority to Iraqi security forces. In September, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. acknowledged that only one Iraqi battalion -- fewer than 1,000 troops -- can fight without U.S. help. An additional 40 can lead counterinsurgency operations with our support.

The president must set a schedule for getting Iraqi forces trained to the point that they can act on their own or take the lead with U.S. help. We should take up other countries on their offers to do more training, especially of officers. We should focus on getting the security ministries up to speed. Even well-trained troops need to be equipped, sustained and directed.

We also need an effective counterinsurgency strategy. The administration finally understands the need not only to clear territory but also to hold and build on it. We have never had enough U.S. troops to do that. Now there is no choice but to gamble on the Iraqis. We can help by changing the mix of our forces to include more embedded trainers, civil affairs units and Special Forces.

Iraqis of all sects want to live in a stable country. Iraq's neighbors don't want a civil war next door. The major powers don't want a terrorist haven in the heart of the Middle East. The American people want us to succeed.

If the administration shows it has a blueprint for protecting our fundamental security interests in Iraq, Americans will support it.

The writer is a senator from Delaware and the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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