Exit Strategies

By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

If U.S. combat forces withdraw from Iraq in the near future, three developments would be likely to unfold. Majority Shiites would drive Sunnis out of ethnically mixed areas west to Anbar province. Southern Iraq would erupt in civil war between Shiite groups. And the Kurdish north would solidify its borders and invite a U.S. troop presence there. In short, Iraq would effectively become three separate nations.

That was the conclusion reached in recent "war games" exercises conducted for the U.S. military by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson. "I honestly don't think it will be apocalyptic," said Anderson, who has served in Iraq and now works for a major defense contractor. But "it will be ugly."

In making the case for a continued U.S. troop presence, President Bush has offered far more dire forecasts, arguing that al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- would take over Iraq after a "precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces. Al-Qaeda, he said recently, would "be able to recruit better and raise more money from which to launch their objectives" of attacking the U.S. homeland. War opponents in Congress counter that Bush's talk about al-Qaeda is overblown fear-mongering and that nothing could be worse than the present situation.

Increasingly, the Washington debate over when U.S. forces should leave is centering on what would happen once they do. The U.S. military, aware of this political battlefield, has been quietly exploring scenarios of a reduced troop presence, performing role-playing exercises and studying historical parallels. Would the Iraqi government find its way, or would the country divide along sectarian lines? Would al-Qaeda take over? Would Iran? Would U.S. security improve or deteriorate? Does the answer depend on when, how and how many U.S. troops depart?

Some military officers contend that, regardless of whether Iraq breaks apart or outside actors seek to take over after a U.S. pullout, ever greater carnage is inevitable. "The water-cooler chat I hear most often . . . is that there is going to be an outbreak of violence when we leave that makes the [current] instability look like a church picnic," said an officer who has served in Iraq.

However, just as few envisioned the long Iraq war, now in its fifth year, or the many setbacks along the way, there are no firm conclusions regarding the consequences of a reduction in U.S. troops. A senior administration official closely involved in Iraq policy imagines a vast internecine slaughter as Iraq descends into chaos but cautions that it is impossible to know the outcome. "We've got to be very modest about our predictive capabilities," the official said.

Mistakes of the Past

In April of last year, the Army and Joint Forces Command sponsored a war game called Unified Quest 2007 at the Army War College in Pennsylvania. It assumed the partition of an "Iraq-like" country, said one player, retired Army Col. Richard Sinnreich, with U.S. troops moving quickly out of the capital to redeploy in the far north and south. "We have obligations to the Kurds and the Kuwaitis, and they also offer the most stable and secure locations from which to continue," he said.

"Even then, the end-of-game assessment wasn't very favorable" to the United States, he said.

Anderson, the retired Marine, has conducted nearly a dozen Iraq-related war games for the military over the past two years, many premised on a U.S. combat pullout by a set date -- leaving only advisers and support units -- and concluded that partition would result. The games also predicted that Iran would intervene on one side of a Shiite civil war and would become bogged down in southern Iraq.

T.X. Hammes, another retired Marine colonel, said that an extended Iranian presence in Iraq could lead to increased intervention by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states on the other side. "If that happens," Hammes said, "I worry that the Iranians come to the conclusion they have to do something to undercut . . . the Saudis." Their best strategy, he said, "would be to stimulate insurgency among the Shiites in Saudi Arabia."

In a secret war game conducted in December at an office building near the Pentagon, more than 20 participants from the military, the CIA, the State Department and the private sector spent three days examining what might unfold if the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group were implemented.

One question involved how Syria and Iran might respond to the U.S. diplomatic outreach proposed by the bipartisan group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). The gamers concluded that Iran would be difficult to engage because its divided government is incapable of delivering on its promises. Role-players representing Syria did engage with the U.S. diplomats, but linked helping out in Baghdad to a lessening of U.S. pressure in Lebanon.

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