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The Right Iraq Footprint

By David Ignatius
Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Don't be afraid of Iraqi sovereignty," Gen. John Abizaid used to say when he was Centcom commander. And that's good advice now as Iraqis and Americans think about the new "status of forces" agreement that will shape the country next year when the Bush administration is gone.

America should be looking, as Iraqis are, for a transition to a different kind of relationship. The time is ripe, at last, to think about a gradual withdrawal of most American soldiers. The U.S. troop surge has had enough success in reducing the violence that we can say "Hallelujah!" or "Alhamdulillah!" and start to look for the exit ramp. Not a quick pullout, but not a long-term occupation either, premised on the false hope that Iraq can be an Arab version of South Korea or Germany.

I've been helped in thinking about the future of Iraq by conversations over the past week with Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer and an expert in counterinsurgency. He was a key member of the team that drafted Gen. David Petraeus's Iraq campaign plan. He was speaking in a private capacity at an academic conference sponsored by the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies -- and he stressed that he was offering ideas about the future, rather than a critique of past or present strategy.

Kilcullen's key point is that we need to use the breathing space the surge has created to transition to a presence in Iraq that is less costly and more sustainable. By congressional estimates, we're spending about $400 million a day on the war; at that rate, we are walking into the trap Osama bin Laden described in 2004, when he said he wanted to draw us so deep into conflict that we would eventually leave the region exhausted and bankrupt, the way the Soviets departed Afghanistan.

Kilcullen argues, as Abizaid did, that our heavy military occupation of Iraq has created enemies unnecessarily. It's human nature: People don't like to see another country's army patrolling their streets. It's the "antibody response," he says. "Our large-scale presence, although essential for current stability, also creates an angry reaction -- and therefore can't be a permanent solution. We need to focus on what General Petraeus has called 'sustainable security.' "

The alternative to our big, uniformed force in Iraq is a lighter, smaller, more nimble residual force. This force could concentrate on the tasks that most Iraqis and Americans seem to think are sensible -- fighting al-Qaeda terrorists and training the Iraqi military and other proxy forces. "Over the long run, we need to go cheap, quiet, low-footprint," argues Kilcullen.

The continuing U.S. presence in Iraq will depend on Special Operations forces -- both the "black" SOF that will hunt terrorists and the "white" SOF that will train and fight alongside the Iraqis. We will also need a strong intelligence presence. As uniformed troops decline, the need for CIA paramilitary forces and case officers will increase.

The right formula, says Kilcullen, is: "Overt De-Escalation; Covert Disruption." Indeed, our future Iraq presence may look more like covert action than traditional warfare. We've made a lot of friends among tribal leaders in the past several years, as the United States finally began to learn the tools of counterinsurgency. Those relationships will be important in the next phase.

A final, essential ingredient in this transition is diplomacy -- including the clandestine variety. The next administration will want to explore with Iran whether it can find rules of the road in Iraq that protect each country's legitimate security interests. That kind of exploratory dialogue is often better done in private.

A new administration won't want to talk publicly with terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, but there's no reason it shouldn't emulate Henry Kissinger -- who authorized secret intelligence links with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1974 even as the United States branded it a terrorist group and refused to meet with its representatives openly.

The presidential campaign debate about Iraq, so far, has been a sterile one -- implying that the choice is between an Obama solution of pulling out the troops and a McCain solution of staying the course and winning military victory. Neither alternative is realistic.

The right way out is something in between -- ambiguous, messy, occasionally in the shadows -- a course that recognizes Iraqi sovereignty but also works with care and cunning to protect America's interests.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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