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Exit Strategies

The bottom line, one participant said, was "pretty much what we are seeing" since the Bush administration began intermittent talks with Damascus and Tehran: not much progress or tangible results.

Amid political arguments in Washington over troop departures, U.S. military commanders on the ground stress the importance of developing a careful and thorough withdrawal plan. Whatever the politicians decide, "it needs to be well-thought-out and it cannot be a strategy that is based on 'Well, we need to leave,' " Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, a top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Friday from his base near Tikrit.

History is replete with bad withdrawal outcomes. Among the most horrific was the British departure from Afghanistan in 1842, when 16,500 active troops and civilians left Kabul thinking they had safe passage to India. Two weeks later, only one European arrived alive in Jalalabad, near the Afghan-Indian border.

The Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began in May 1988 after a decade of occupation, reveals other mistakes to avoid. Like the U.S. troops who arrived in Iraq in 2003, the Soviet force in Afghanistan was overwhelmingly conventional, heavy with tanks and other armored vehicles. Once Moscow made public its plans to leave, the political and security situations unraveled much faster than anticipated. "The Soviet Army actually had to fight out of certain areas," said Army Maj. Daniel Morgan, a two-tour veteran of the Iraq war who has been studying the Soviet pullout at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with an eye toward gleaning lessons for Iraq. "As a matter of fact, they had to airlift out of Kandahar, the fighting was so bad."

War supporters and opponents in Washington disagree on the lessons of the departure most deeply imprinted on the American psyche: the U.S. exit from Vietnam. "I saw it once before, a long time ago," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran and presidential candidate, said last week of an early Iraq withdrawal. "I saw a defeated military, and I saw how long it took a military that was defeated to recover."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), also a White House hopeful, finds a different message in the Vietnam retreat. Saying that Baghdad would become "Saigon revisited," he warned that "we will be lifting American personnel off the roofs of buildings in the Green Zone if we do not change policy, and pretty drastically."

The Al-Qaeda Threat

What is perhaps most striking about the military's simulations is that its post-drawdown scenarios focus on civil war and regional intervention and upheaval rather than the establishment of an al-Qaeda sanctuary in Iraq.

For Bush, however, that is the primary risk of withdrawal. "It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaeda," he said in a news conference last week. "It would mean that we'd be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we'd allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan." If U.S. troops leave too soon, Bush said, they would probably "have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous."

Withdrawal would also "confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region and embolden Syria and especially Iran, which would then exert its influence throughout the Middle East," the president said.

Bush is not alone in his description of the al-Qaeda threat should the United States leave Iraq too soon. "There's not a doubt in my mind that Osama bin Laden's one goal is to take over the Kingdom of the Two Mosques [Saudi Arabia] and reestablish the caliphate" that ended with the Ottoman Empire, said a former senior military official now at a Washington think tank. "It would be very easy for them to set up camps and run them in Anbar and Najaf" provinces in Iraq.

U.S. intelligence analysts, however, have a somewhat different view of al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq, noting that the local branch takes its inspiration but not its orders from bin Laden. Its enemies -- the overwhelming majority of whom are Iraqis -- reside in Baghdad and Shiite-majority areas of Iraq, not in Saudi Arabia or the United States. While intelligence officials have described the Sunni insurgent group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq as an "accelerant" for violence, they have cited domestic sectarian divisions as the main impediment to peace.

In a report released yesterday, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that al-Qaeda is "only one part" of a spectrum of Sunni extremist groups and is far from the largest or most active. Military officials have said in background briefings that al-Qaeda is responsible for about 15 percent of the attacks, Cordesman said, although the group is "highly effective" and probably does "the most damage in pushing Iraq towards civil war." But its activities "must be kept in careful perspective, and it does not dominate the Sunni insurgency," he said.

'Serious Consequences'

Moderate lawmakers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) have concluded that a unified Iraqi government is not on the near horizon and have called for redeployment, change of mission and a phased drawdown of U.S. forces. Far from protecting U.S. interests, Lugar said in a recent speech, the continuation of Bush's policy poses "extreme risks for U.S. national security."

Critics of complete withdrawal often charge that "those advocating [it] just don't understand the serious consequences of doing so," said Wayne White, a former deputy director of Near East division of the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau. "Unfortunately, most of us old Middle East hands understand all too well some of the consequences."

White is among many Middle East experts who think that the United States should leave Iraq sooner rather than later, but differ on when, how and what would happen next. Most agree that either an al-Qaeda or Iranian takeover would be unlikely, and say that Washington should step up its regional diplomacy, putting more pressure on regional actors such as Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for what is happening in their back yards.

Many regional experts within and outside the administration note that while there is a range of truly awful possibilities, it is impossible to predict what will happen in Iraq -- with or without U.S. troops.

"Say the Shiites drive the Sunnis into Anbar," one expert said of Anderson's war-game scenario. "Well, what does that really mean? How many tens of thousands of people are going to get killed before all the surviving Sunnis are in Anbar?" He questioned whether that result would prove acceptable to a pro-withdrawal U.S. public.

White, speaking at a recent symposium on Iraq, addressed the possibility of unpalatable withdrawal consequences by paraphrasing Winston Churchill's famous statement about democracy. "I posit that withdrawal from Iraq is the worst possible option, except for all the others."

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