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New Premises in Iraq
Prospects for Withdrawal Have to Be Viewed Through the Lens of Progress

By Henry A. Kissinger
Thursday, July 31, 2008

The U.S. presidential campaign has been so long and so intense that it seems to operate in a cocoon, oblivious to changes that should alter its premises. A striking example is the debate over withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Over the past year, many have proposed setting a deadline for withdrawal. Proponents have argued that a date certain would compel the Iraqi government to accelerate the policy of reconciliation; would speed the end of the war; and would enable the United States to concentrate its efforts on more strategically important regions, such as Afghanistan. Above all, they argued, the war was lost, and withdrawal would represent the least costly way to deal with the debacle.

These premises have been overtaken by events. Almost all objective observers agree that major progress has been made on all three fronts of the Iraq war: Al-Qaeda, the Sunni jihadist force recruited largely from outside the country, seems on the run in Iraq; the indigenous Sunni insurrection attempting to restore Sunni predominance has largely died down; and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has, at least temporarily, mastered the Shiite militias that were challenging its authority. After years of disappointment, we face the need to shift gears mentally to consider emerging prospects of success.

Of course, we cannot tell now whether these changes are permanent or whether, and to what extent, they reflect a decision by our adversaries, including Iran, to husband their forces for the aftermath of the Bush administration. But we do know that the outcome of the conflict will determine the kind of world in which the new administration will have to conduct its policies. Any appearance that radical Islamic forces were responsible for a U.S. defeat would have enormous destabilizing consequences far beyond the region. How and when to leave Iraq will therefore emerge as a principal decision for the new president.

Whatever the interpretation of recent events, the Sunni part of Iraq has created local forces backed by several Sunni states to fight al-Qaeda and indigenous insurgents. These, in turn, have contributed to easing Sunni concerns over being marginalized by the Shiite majority. All along, the Kurdish region has developed its own self-defense forces.

In this manner, prospects for reconciliation among the three parts of the country, Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni, have appeared not through legislation, as congressional resolutions applying the American experience imagined, but by necessity and a measure of military and political equilibrium. Since the need for American forces in dealing with a massive insurrection has diminished, they can increasingly concentrate on helping the Iraqi government resist pressures from neighbors and the occasional flare-up of terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda or Iranian-backed militias. In that environment, the various national and provincial elections foreseen for the next months in Iraq's constitution can help shape new Iraqi institutions.

A strategic reserve can now be created by the United States out of some of the forces currently in Iraq, with some moving to other threatened areas and others returning to the United States. American deployment is transformed from abdication into part of a geopolitical design. Its culmination should be a diplomatic conference charged with establishing a formal peace settlement. Such a conference was first assembled two years ago on the foreign ministers' level. It was composed of all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria; Egypt; and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That conference should be reassembled and charged with defining an international status for Iraq and the guarantees to enforce it.

In addition, regional efforts to stabilize the situation are underway. Turkey is seeking to mediate between Israel and Syria; a Qatari initiative has achieved at least a temporary pause in the fighting in Lebanon.

Establishing a deadline is the surest way to undermine the hopeful prospects. It will encourage largely defeated internal groups to go underground until a world more congenial to their survival arises with the departure of American forces. Al-Qaeda will have a deadline against which to plan a full-scale resumption of operations. And it will give Iran an incentive to strengthen its supporters in the Shiite community for the period after the American withdrawal. Establishing a fixed deadline would also dissipate assets needed for the diplomatic endgame.

The inherent contradictions of the proposed withdrawal schedule compound the difficulties. Under the fixed withdrawal scheme, combat troops are to be withdrawn, but sufficient forces would remain to protect the U.S. Embassy, fight a resumption of al-Qaeda and contribute to defense against outside intervention. But such tasks require combat, not support, forces, and the foreseeable controversy about the elusive distinction will distract from the overall diplomatic goal. Nor is withdrawal from Iraq necessary to free forces for operations in Afghanistan. There is no need to risk the effort in Iraq to send two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan; those troops will become available even in the absence of a deadline. (It should be noted that I am a friend of Sen. John McCain and occasionally advise him.)

In a positive gesture, leading advocates of a fixed deadline, including Sen. Barack Obama, have recently put forward the idea that both withdrawal and the residual force will be condition-based. But if that is the case, why establish a deadline at all? It would suggest shifting the debate to the conditions for withdrawal rather than its timing.

These considerations explain Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's conduct on the occasion of Obama's visit to Iraq. Maliki is negotiating with the Bush administration about a status-of-forces agreement for the residual forces to remain in Iraq. Given popular attitudes and the imminence of provincial elections, he probably wanted to convey that the American presence was not planned as a permanent occupation. The accident of the arrival of a presidential candidate, who had already-published views on that subject, reinforced that incentive. To reject the senator's withdrawal plan in front of a large media contingent would have been to antagonize someone with whom Maliki might have to deal as president.

The American presence in Iraq should not be presented as open-ended; this would not be supported by either Iraqi or American domestic opinion. But neither should it be put forward in terms of rigid deadlines. Striking this balance is a way for our country to come together as a constructive outcome emerges. Thirty years ago, Congress cut off aid to Vietnam and Cambodia two years after American troops had been withdrawn and local forces were still desperate to resist. Domestic divisions had overcome all other considerations. We must not repeat the tragedy that followed.

The next president has a great opportunity to stabilize Iraq and lay the basis for a decisive turn in the war against jihadist radicalism and for a more peaceful Middle East. Surely he will want to assess the situation on the ground before setting a strategy for his term. He should not be limited by rigid prescriptions to vindicate maxims of the past, no matter how plausible they once seemed. Withdrawal is a means; the end is a more peaceful and hopeful world.

The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

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