Troop Withdrawal and the War In Iraq

Fred Kagan
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Wednesday, August 17, 2005; 3:00 PM

President Bush is determined to stay the course in Iraq, but many are calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Is leaving Iraq the answer? Would would troop withdrawal entail? Would it change the course of Iraqi reconstruction and the war on terrorism?

Fred Kagan , resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks leaving Iraq could be a big mistake. He was online Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 3 p.m. ET to answer questions on troop withdrawal and its effects on the war in Iraq.

The transcript follows.


Fred Kagan: I'm Fred Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, ready to discuss what is necessary in order to win in Iraq.


Dunn Loring, Va.: This war is about winning hearts & minds and not about winning militarily. Why would a military withdrawal would be a mistake when we can do much better by directing our energy (and money) to win the other war: genuine support for our middle-east policy? The idea that if we leave, the situation would get worse is so far from reality. How worse can it be when every day hundreds of people get killed (because of our presence)?

Fred Kagan: The key point here is that people are not being killed simply because of our presence in Iraq. The various opposition groups actively oppose the idea of creating a democracy in Iraq, some, like Zarqawi, because of their anti-democratic ideology, others because they are confident that they will

Fred Kagan: not benefit from a democratic Iraq. Many of the former Ba'athists and Sunni revolutionaries fall into this category. These groups will not stop attacking the nascent Iraqi democratic regime just because America withdraws. On the contrary, there is every reason to expect their attacks to increase in intensity if we leave prematurely. One of the keys to political success in Iraq is to convince all of the discontented parties that there is no solution for them in violence. The U.S. presence is helping with that process and will continue to help. It would be dreadful to withdraw prematurely and thereby stoke the hopes of those unhappy with the new order that they might be able to destroy it rather than persuading them that they must work within it to achieve their goals.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't it clear by now that our occupation of Iraq has inflamed Islamic hatred against the West, and therefore has made Islamic terrorism an even greater threat? Remember Al Qaeda's first triumph: fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Let's not give them further reasons to fight against us.

Fred Kagan: Al Qaeda shares a militant Islamist ideology that dates back to at least the 1960's and the Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb. Qutb came to hate the U.S. by visiting America--he was disgusted by what he saw as the decadence and irreligiosity of the West and came to see western culture as a major force seducing Muslims from their proper way of life. This ideology hates America and the West for what we are, and that hatred will persist whether we are in Iraq or not. It is also worth noting, in this regard, that many people predicted that the U.S. attack on Saddam would lead to an explosion in the "Arab street," which never took place. Understanding the feelings of Muslims is a complicated process that no one has yet been able to undertake with any confidence or high degree of accuracy, and so I do not think that it is at all clear that "our occupation of Iraq has inflamed Islamic hatred against the West." A further point worth noting is the extremely high degree of violence the militant Islamists direct against fellow Muslims--something that is very hard to explain simply in terms of response to Western inflammation.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hello Mr. Kagan. Thank you for taking questions. In the last several weeks the administration's message machine seems to have broken down possibly indicating a fight going on between the uniformed military and the civilian policymakers. My husband is a reservist who made it home in one piece from Iraq. In the 18 years our family has been associated with the army, we grew accustomed to the doctrine of using overwhelming force, having a clear, limited military goal, and well-defined exit strategy. We looked with dismay on Mr. Rumsfeld's approach and hoped that at some point the generals might actually stand up vigorously in favor of the former doctrine. Could that be happening now? It seems to me that the erosion of support for the Iraq adventure can be tied to the public's confusion/skepticism with respect to how this administration defines its overarching theory of the proper use of our forces. Finally, at this point will it really make any difference, other than to those of us who stand to lose out most precious family members, whether we stay the course another year or two or three? Isn't Iraq already destined to become a theocratic Islamic state politically and ideologically tied to Iran?

Fred Kagan: To take the last comment first, I am confident that it makes a great deal of difference whether we withdraw now or in several years' time. The outcome of the democratic experiment in Iraq is still very much in doubt. There is no way to know what the Iraqi government will ultimately look like until there is a stable democratic process up and running. The insurgents are trying their best to prevent that from ever happening, and our presence or rapid withdrawal will play a critical role in determining whether or not they will succeed. The development of a theocracy in Iraq is, of course possible, but by no means a foregone conclusion.

I do agree with your other point, however. It does seem that there is confusion within the administration about priorities, with some preferring for a variety of reasons to push for withdrawal as rapidly as possible, and others, including the President, arguing for the importance of staying until the mission is really accomplished. It would definitely help the President retain and improve public support for the war if he could establish a single agreed-upon policy for Iraq accepted throughout the administration.


Bethesda, Md.: In retrospect, do you think it was a grave mistake for the CPA to have disbanded the Iraqi Army following the invasion? The core of the insurgency would have possibly never existed to begin with, and any resistance would have been easily destroyed had we recruited them to fight for us, right?

Fred Kagan: Yes, it was a terrible mistake simply to disband the entire Iraqi Army immediately, and it is odd because there was general consensus among those who had thought about these problems beforehand that such a decision was unwise. At a minimum, ORHA (the CPA predecessor) should have kept as many Iraqi soldiers on the payroll as possible rather than simply dumping them with their weapons and expertise into the countryside, shamed and unemployed. The decision was driven apparently by the fear of being seen as complicit with the Saddam regime, an argument not entirely without merit. But the policy actually pursued was definitely an error.


Berkeley, Ca.: Of the Iraqi insurgents, how many are former Baathists and how many are al-Qaeda-style jihadists? How does this affect our strategy for containment and/or defeat of the various insurgent groups?

Fred Kagan: This is the sixty-four million dollar question. There is a third group to be considered as well--Sunnis dissatisfied with the development of a Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi democracy. As a general rule, it seems clear that the number of foreign jihadists is relatively low, but their impact is disproportionately high because they form a high percentage of the suicide bombers. Understanding the complex nature of the insurgency will be essential to success. Efforts to find and capture or kill jihadists are essential, but will not resolve the underlying problems driving the Sunni insurgency or placate or destroy the former Ba'athists. The U.S. and its Iraqi allies have to pursue three or more different approaches each targeted at a specific enemy, which is one of the factors that makes this counter-insurgency effort so difficult.


Bethesda, Md.: Can we look to Vietnam for any lessons on the withdrawal?

Fred Kagan: Only if we want to lose. The comparison of Iraq to Vietnam so common throughout the war and the insurgency is becoming increasingly tenuous. In Vietnam the U.S. faced a large-scale guerrilla war against an indigenous enemy (the Vietcong) that had the capable to fight isolated American units on its own, and against a regular foreign army (the NVA) that could actually maneuver in the field against U.S. forces. There are no such threats in Iraq. In Iraq we now face a complex campaign of nearly pure terrorism. The Iraqi insurgents are not capable of launching militarily meaningful strikes against U.S. forces, and cannot dare to face those forces in any sort of stand-up fight. In this regard, the U.S. is doing much, much better in Iraq militarily than we ever did in Vietnam--or than the Soviets ever did in Afghanistan. Because of the dissimilarities in the nature of the insurgent military threat, I think we will find that the Vietnam model is increasingly unhelpful, and we will need to turn our attention to successful counter-terrorism campaigns in order to learn the best lessons for how to win in Iraq.


Washington, D.C.: Given the president's recent statement hinting that the military option, or at least the use of force, was still an option to deal with Iran, could the recent hints about beginning to withdraw troops from Iraq in the near future be a way of increasing pressure on Teheran by increasing the flexibility of the US military?

Fred Kagan: If so, it is a very oblique way of sending signals that will, I think, end up sending the wrong signal. The Iranians care very much about what is going on in Iraq, and they would see the failure of U.S. efforts to establish a stable democracy--which the Iranian government has brutally suppressed in its own country--as a victory for themselves and an opportunity. Withdrawing prematurely from Iraq, furthermore, actually removes the immediate pressure from Iran because it has the effect of reducing the number of U.S. forces near Iran's borders.


Edina, Mn.: I have enjoyed your commentary on the war on terrorism and our efforts in Iraq/Afghanistan for the past few years. I have one question that seems to be ignored: Regardless of whether we maintain our military presence in Iraq over an extended period time or whether we train and develop an effective Iraqi military force capable of fighting a counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism war, can the US or the Iraqis, with or without our presence, establish an acceptable security level without directly confronting the support the insurgents/terrorists are receiving from Syria and Iran? Am I wrong to believe that the insurgency/terrorism in Iraqi would be significantly hindered if Syria and Iran were not supporting their efforts? I presume that neither country desires to have Iraq succeed on any level. Or do you think that their support of the insurgents/terrorists in Iraq is overstated? Thank you.

Fred Kagan: This is a good question and it is not possible really to know the answer until the war is over. It is certainly important to try to reduce the flow of supplies and recruits across Iraq's borders, and the U.S. and Iraqi militaries are taking this challenge very seriously right now. They are also having considerable success. Probably the most important support moving across the borders are the jihadist suicide bombers, and the problem here is that it takes very few such people to make a significant impact. I doubt that we will ever be able to "seal" the border sufficiently to keep all such people out, but I do not think that that is essential to success in Iraq. What is key is convincing the Sunnis and the former Ba'athists within Iraq that there is no prospect for success in violence, and that their only chance for improving their position is by participating in the political process. If we can succeed in that, then the flow of jihadists will continue to be harmful and lead to tragedies, but it will not derail progress toward democracy and stability in Iraq.


Oslo, Norway: This is not a question, it is comment. I was extremely against the invasion of Iraq,knowing it would be a colossal mistake, but I am shocked at the request of Americans who wanted the war and were furious to others who did not, to withdraw our troops. Once we have invaded a country, destroyed its infrastructure and killed many thousands of their people, it is against my sense of responsibility to walk out and leave the country in shambles - caused by us. As a mother with a son, it broke my heart to see a documentary of wounded shoulders sent home - the utter hopelessness and despair on the face of a young American who had lost both legs below his knees. While "Mr. Excitement" can go to sleep at 9 p.m. with a no obvious regrets, people like me lie awake worrying about our boys in a hostile landscape. But the death of Americans was, and is, a predictable result of the Bush war. Death happens in wars. And it will have to be accepted, because it is now our reality, and we are responsible now for bringing order out of the chaos we have created. It may eventually bankrupt our country, but Bush voters asked for it...

Fred Kagan: I am grateful for your candor and I respect your position. You are quite right--we are well beyond the point at which the wisdom of invading Iraq is still relevant. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that so many people still put so much effort into this argument, which distracts us from our critical task today. Whether one supported the war or not, simply abandoning Iraq to chaos and allowing it to become a violent base and breeding ground for terrorists is unacceptable. There is no decent way to leave Iraq except to succeed in establishing democracy and peace there.


Washington, D.C.: As I understand it, you believe our goal is to build a democracy in Iraq. Do you think the US military is trained for this purpose?

Fred Kagan: Actually, the U.S. military is astonishingly able to conduct such a mission. American officers and soldiers are extremely well versed in the nature of democracy and especially in the way that a military must function within a democracy. They receive significant education about these issues at many points in their careers, and the interaction of individual American soldiers with Iraqi soldiers is one of the very best things going on now that will help prepare Iraq for the transition to a stable democracy. U.S. soldiers are terrific role models in this regard. Beyond that, the professional American military, both active troops and reserves, have risen to the challenges of establishing a democracy in Iraq amazingly well. Were they trained to do it? Not enough. But they were trained well enough in their general skills that they have been able to adapt and respond. Efforts have been underway continuously within the military to learn lessons about how to do this and ensure that units going to Iraq are provided with those lessons. More such effort will be required, but this really is one of the most impressive and heartening success stories coming out of Iraq.


Washington, D.C.: What sort of message should the Bush administration be sending to the American people? They have to balance their commitment to Iraq and its people against their need to respect (or at least take into account) the views of the American people. Is it too late for the administration to send out a credible message on Iraq, given their early insistence that it would be a short war of liberation and their unwillingness to admit to having been mistaken?

Fred Kagan: I think that the truth would serve here very well. The Iraqis have taken great strides both in establishing a new government in a short period of time--something that is amazingly difficult to do well--and in crafting a military from scratch in the midst of an insurgency. U.S. soldiers and civilians are helping in both tasks every day and are essential to success. The road from this point forward will not be short, but with a real commitment to pay the necessary price, there is every reason to believe that victory will be ours. The lack of candor in the administration's response to its mistakes in the past has certainly been harmful, in my opinion, but I don't think that a mea culpa by the president would help now. I think we need to see a more positive and less defensive message from the White House.


Fort Lauderdale, Fl.: With the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, an Iranian front organization) effectively in control of the Iraqi Congress, it is rapidly looking like we spent $250 billion and got 1850 Americans killed to let the Iranians win the 20+ year proxy war we fought with them. What are the chances of reversing this seeming inevitability with or without a full on US troop commitment?

Fred Kagan: I believe that this is too simplistic a view of the problem. Iraq's Shi'a are not Iranian expats who want to turn Baghdad into Teheran West. There are certainly some, even influential, Shi'a with such views, but there are many who do not share those views. Considering that virtually none of the Sunnis would support such a program, it seems to me extremely unlikely to come to pass. I do not, therefore, think that the U.S. has fought a war to help Iran take over Iraq, and I am confident that the best way to move forward is to establish stable democracy in Iraq.


Savannah, Ga.: What happens if Iraq just dissolves into civil war? Already the Sunnis seem to mostly see the current government as an instrument of Shiite domination. And what point does this become someone else's fight? Our sons and daughters shouldn't die to save Shiite theocracy.

Fred Kagan: If Iraq dissolves into civil war it would be a catastrophe for the U.S. and the West. America and its allies must do everything in their power to prevent that from coming about. As I have noted before, one of the best ways to accomplish that goal is to maintain our presence within Iraq long enough to persuade those dissatisfied with the new order that violence offers them no solution. We need to persuade the Sunnis, both positively and with the threat of our continued presence, that civil war is not an option and convince them to work within the system to achieve their goals. This is a critical part of any road to success in Iraq.


Indianapolis, In.: What has been the single biggest mistake you think we've made in Iraq? The biggest disappointment?

Fred Kagan: We went into Iraq with too few troops and an insufficiently developed plan for the post-war situation. We focused too heavily on destroying Saddam's regime and not enough on what would come after that. We were then too slow to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq as it became clear that international assistance would not be as forthcoming as some had hoped and as the insurgency took root. These were all disappointing decisions. I am hopeful that we are finally beginning to recover from them somewhat, as the military situation improves (despite the suicide bombings) and as more Iraqi troops come on line. If we can stay the course over the next two years, I think we stand a good chance of seeing excellent progress.


Potomac, Md.: Assuming that we have the desired level of troops in Iraq, what should be the specific operational military objectives for the US in Iraq?

Fred Kagan: U.S. troops in Iraq face the following missions, among others: border security; securing lines of communications; training Iraqi forces; developing intelligence about insurgents, both domestic and foreign; striking viable insurgent targets, either critical individuals or the rare mass of rebels; maintaining public order and combating crime, both organized and random; re-establishing and maintaining essential infrastructure and public services; helping the Iraqis provide a sufficient military/police presence to make them comfortable working with us and with the Iraqi government. This is only a partial list. Iraqi organizations are slowly developing to take over some of this burden, but we cannot pass the torch until they can really grasp it. That is why this is such a manpower-intensive activity, and why we will continue to need a large presence in Iraq for some time to come.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Could you talk a little bit about how you would adjust U.S. policy at this point--- more troops, fewer troops? What positive steps are necessary to extricate ourselves from the Iraq mess?

Fred Kagan: I think we are really beyond the point, unfortunately, where we can increase the troop presence in Iraq for any period of time. There will apparently be a spike in that presence toward the end of the year connected with the constitution and the elections, and I would hope that we would take advantage of that spike to strike the insurgency harder. But if we would only sustain the current troop level now, the situation will gradually improve as more and more trained Iraqi troops become able to walk the streets and perform key missions. I would propose, therefore, holding the U.S. military presence pretty constant until at least the summer of 2007, when we can re-evaluate. Should the situation suddenly deteriorate, of course, we would need to be able to reinforce our presence there; should it miraculously improve sooner than that, we could certainly think about withdrawing more quickly, but only if we are confident that we are leaving behind an Iraqi military and police force able to handle the challenges it will continue to face.


Mason City, Ia.: Isn't our ultimate problem that we've never had enough troops to police Iraq? But then our Army is already stretched to the limit. How can we expand our Army if recruitments are down? Bring back the draft? Then you'll see riots in every city in America.

Fred Kagan: We do need to expand the Army, and we can't bring back the draft. Not only would it lead to enormous public dissatisfaction, it would compromise the quality of the professional Army, which is not now ready in any way to accept a large influx of draftees. How can we resolve this conundrum? First, it would help if the President would actually stand up and call for young men and women to join the Army, something he has never done adequately. Second, it will probably be necessary to increase enlistment bonuses again. Third, the mere fact of a commitment to increasing the Army would, in my opinion, help recruit soldiers for it. A large part of the reason the Army has been having recruiting problems, I believe, is that it is well known that repeated deployments have become the norm and place an enormous strain on soldiers and their families. A larger Army would be able to reduce that strain significantly, making service much more attractive once again.


Washington, D.C.: Given the reputation of the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein, the ease with which it took over Kuwait and the inability of the Gulf states to respond to the challenge, why is it that the Iraqi army would be unable to conduct counter insurgency operations without US aid? Surely the army did have able officers, as well as the artillery and airstrike skills that you mentioned were lacking. What are the options for bringing army officers back, beyond the fact that they were probably Baathists?

Fred Kagan: The Iraqi Army of Saddam's day is no more. We could not, at this point, simply reconstruct it by calling its members back to the colors, because the disbandment of that force immediately after the war alienated many soldiers and officers, some of whom are now insurgents. We might be able to bring back some Ba'athist officers, although that is quite challenging considering the fact that Ba'athist officers are now part of the insurgency and the crimes the Ba'ath Party committed against its own people. The only way forward from here is to create a new Iraqi Army free of Saddam's taint. Considering that Saddam's Army kept order by using poison gas and torture on its own people, this is perhaps not such a bad thing, however inconvenient it might be.


Oslo, Norway: Aren't the same people who want to end the war the same people who criticized the first President Bush for "not finishing the job?"

Fred Kagan: Some yes, many no. It is really time to move beyond considerations of who held what position when, either in 1991 or in 2003. The issue before us is success or failure in Iraq, and we should focus on that.


Chicago, Il.: In you're op-ed piece today you spoke of the shortfalls of an Iraqi security force. To what extent is the problem logistical (lack of money, recruits, infrastructure), or psychological (Iraqi troops aren't very nationalistic, and some are cowardly.)

Fred Kagan: The problem is overwhelmingly logistical and very little psychological. Even to stand in line at a recruiting station in Iraq is a dangerous activity, since the insurgents have been attacking those stations with suicide bombs. Anyone who stands there has already demonstrated his courage. Numerous reports from U.S. soldiers working with the Iraqis now make it clear that the Iraqis are indeed fighting bravely and with determination to secure their country.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company