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Precedents, Variables, and Options in Planning a U.S. Military Disengagement Strategy from Iraq

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill, Dr. Conrad C. Crane. | October 2005

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The U.S. and coalition invasion of Iraq in spring 2003 has led to the most ambitious U.S. effort at nation-building since the end of World War II. Unlike the aftermath of World War II, however, the United States is faced with a ferocious insurgency that is threatening the emerging government of Iraq and its developing security forces. Moreover, this program of Iraqi political rehabilitation must be carried out in a part of the world that is well-known for its strong sensitivities about Western influence over that region. It must also be carried out without significant, in-country military support from the majority of U.S. allies, with the most important exception being the United Kingdom. Additionally, this transition must not only sweep aside an old society but build a new one based on the cooperation of Shi?ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other groups.

Previous U.S. experience in coping with postwar problems has demonstrated that a military occupation resembles the major combat phase of a war in that both require maximum flexibility and adaptability on the part of military forces to meet consistently changing conditions. Moreover, past U.S. experience further illustrates that the population of a democratic country engaged in occupation duties can sometimes become first wary and then disillusioned as the enterprise continues into the indefinite future without clear and rapid progress. In the past, the United States has sometimes had to distinguish between optimal and acceptable end states in the countries being occupied, because the optimal end state is not always attainable, but worst case developments must still be prevented. These experiences are worthy of remembering as the United States struggles with the situation in Iraq.

This report views the empowerment of a viable Iraqi central government and a security force to defend its authority as vital to the future of that country. Thus, to be successful in Iraq, the United States must help empower a functioning and unified Iraqi government, support the effort to build an indigenous security force to protect that government and the Iraqi public, and help prevent a breakdown in those intercommunal relations necessary to foster power-sharing and avoid civil war. The U.S. Government must also do this in a time frame that is acceptable to both Iraqis and U.S. public opinion.

Furthermore, these tasks must be accomplished while coping with an ongoing and highly adaptive insurgency. The deeply challenging and multidimensional nature of this effort leaves little latitude for mistakes by the Iraqi government or in future U.S. dealings with Iraq. The United States must therefore decide how much it is prepared to sacrifice to help create and support a Western-style democratic government in Iraq. Since this is a finite commitment, the question arises as to when and how the United States is prepared to adjust its goals should it be faced with the prospect of less than full democracy in Iraq. A partially democratic system that can be encouraged to become more open even following a U.S. withdrawal would clearly be better than a variety of other plausible alternative regimes.

In Iraq, it may be especially difficult for the United States to discern the optimal time to begin withdrawing the majority of its troops. Balancing the goals of supporting stable Iraqi self-government and leaving Iraq in a timely manner has emerged as a major requirement for U.S. regional policy. It is particularly important that the United States does not insist on remaining in Iraq to support maximalist goals and then find itself unable to sustain an ongoing presence there. The danger of a serious decline in U.S. Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard recruiting and, perhaps at some point, retention is of concern, although the latter is not currently a serious problem. The potential for decreasing U.S. public support of the war also exists. While important indications of progress are coming from Iraqi state-building efforts, the public may ultimately judge the success of U.S. activities in Iraq based on whether these efforts allow U.S. troops to begin withdrawing in what to the public is an acceptable time frame. Finally, any prolonged presence of U.S. forces there will require the United States to cope with traditional Iraqi concerns about Western intentions in the region, especially regarding Iraq?s oil.

The danger of a hasty, politically-motivated departure from Iraq is also a problem. Police and military forces with incomplete training will likely crumble in the face of the insurgent challenge, and all the effort to create these forces will be rendered meaningless. Likewise, a new and more democratic Iraqi government will need to be protected as various groups attempt to resolve their differences without being overpowered by their sectarian and ethnic grievances and drifting toward civil war. Empowering a legitimate government to which both Iraqi security forces and citizens can give more than conditional legitimacy will be key to this process. This challenge is mostly an Iraqi one, although the United States will seek to protect emerging Iraqi institutions as a transitional step, while Iraqis prepare to protect themselves.

Without minimizing the problems associated with the current situation, this report recommends strongly against the establishment of a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, unless Iraq?s government fails and the situation becomes hopeless. Establishing the point at which Iraq can fend for itself with a declining U.S. troop presence will be a difficult challenge for U.S. intelligence analysts as they seek to remove a sometimes unpopular U.S./coalition presence, while not setting into motion the prospect of Iraqi government collapse, anarchy, and civil war. Potentially successful dates for beginning a withdrawal must be teased out by analysts weighting a miasma of complex political, military, and economic factors and cannot be established in a manner that bypasses intelligence judgments, destroys the option for flexibility, and risks a premature, haphazard withdrawal that may lead to the collapse of all efforts associated with the U.S. presence in Iraq.

The information cutoff date for this study was August 8, 2005.


This monograph has sought to illustrate how challenging, multifaceted, and difficult it will be to devise an effective exit strategy for Iraq that can also serve as a victory strategy, leaving both the United States and Iraq better off than when the intervention was undertaken in 2003. While this goal is still attainable, remarkably little room exists for error, ideological dogmatism, or ignorance about the nature of the multiple problems associated with such an undertaking. Although the authors of this work understand that no one can generate a perfect plan for addressing the issue of an exit strategy, the following recommendations are offered in the hope that they will be of value to planners and policymakers grappling with this fundamental issue of U.S. strategic policy.

  1. U.S. Government leaders must never forget that the United States will achieve its key objectives once the Iraqi government is viewed by the majority of its people, regardless of sect or ethnicity, as a legitimate government that is worth fighting and dying for; and the Iraqi security forces have the training, know-how, and equipment to put these convictions into practice. Empowering the government and security forces is the key to an endstate in Iraq acceptable to the United States. The U.S. decision to avoid lingering in that country to eradicate the insurgency is therefore compatible with these priorities. All U.S. actions must be considered in light of the burden that they might place on Iraqi governmental legitimacy since this is the key to a government victory.
  2. The United States must develop detailed plans for implementing a withdrawal of significant numbers of troops under a variety of much less than optimal conditions. This requirement means that the Iraqi government may not yet have a strong human rights record, and the security forces may not be able to destroy the insurgency when the United States begins withdrawing troops. If the government is legitimate enough to survive, it may be useful to consider withdrawing the bulk of coalition forces as a way of empowering the new government by giving it the status of a fully independent entity. The United States may also have to scale back its expectations for Iraq?s political future. If the United States withdraws and a civil war does not take place, Iraq is better than we found it. Any regime that respects the need to share power among all major Iraqi groups (and one hopes minor groups) is a great deal better than the Saddam Hussein regime. Moreover, some Iraqi governmental violations of human rights may be inevitable, so long as the government is locked in a death struggle with insurgents who are perfectly willing to bomb mosques and murder large numbers of children such as occurred in July 2005. The United States should be prepared to criticize Iraqi human rights violations, but it also must be aware of the context, and the possibility that the criticism will be more effective and meaningful at a point when the Iraqi government is no longer fighting for its existence.
  3. U.S. military and intelligence leaders must be painfully honest in addressing the question of when Iraqi security forces will be able to function without a coalition troop presence to prop them up. To answer this question incorrectly could cause the United States fail to meet its minimal objective of helping empower a functioning government in Iraq. One of the most serious threats to U.S. goals in Iraq is the danger of unrealistic optimism about the capabilities and élan of the Iraq security forces, and especially those units that have not actually been tested in combat. Such wishful thinking, if acted upon, could cause the Iraqi military to be given too much responsibility and then collapse in the face of enemy opposition which they are not yet prepared to address. The United States does not have the time or resources to build and then rebuild the Iraqi security force after a series of collapses. False or foolish optimism on the ability of forces may lead to a repeat of the November 2004 Mosul disaster on a nationwide scale.
  4. Senior U.S. military leaders must resist the view that they are ?grading themselves? when they are asked to train the security forces and to evaluate Iraqi readiness to assume more expanded duties for military and security operations. The viability of Iraqi units must be measured by a series of tough indicators, including real efforts to measure intangibles like morale and unit cohesion, as well as quantifying training and the distribution of weapons and equipment. Iraqi units that have not proven themselves in battle should remain suspect, units that have histories of heavy infiltration by insurgents and high rates of desertion should be even more suspect, units that have an internal culture where troops speak openly in favor of the insurgents or maintain publicly that they will desert to join an ethnic militia if their sectarian leaders ask them to should be especially suspect. While these military problems may not be easily corrected by U.S. trainers and advisors, neither should they be ignored when attempting to make an honest evaluation of Iraqi prospects for self-defense.
  5. The United States MUST NOT establish a timetable to withdraw from Iraq so long as U.S. leaders consider the situation in Iraq to be redeemable. If a timetable is established and rigidly adhered to regardless of the situation on the ground, then the United States has, in effect, given up on Iraq, and is engaged in what amounts to choosing a withdrawal date by lottery. It has also replaced the judgement of the U.S. military and intelligence leadership with an arbitrary decision on when Iraqi forces will be ready to assume the security duties necessary for that nation to survive intact. A timetable is not a strategy for even the most limited of form of success in Iraq; it is an excuse for allowing the system to collapse.
  6. As a last resort for preventing near-term civil war, the United States may have to swallow the bitter pill of allowing local militias to retain a significant and ongoing role in Iraqi politics if the Iraqi government is interested in pursuing this option and if the Iraqi security forces cannot take full responsibility for the nation?s safety. It is no longer clear that the United States will be able to create military and police forces that can secure the entire country no matter how long U.S. forces remain. It is also doubtful that Sunni Muslims will trust the Shi?ite-dominated central government and security forces to the point that that they will give up their militias without a fight. Militias are better than anarchy, although the danger they may serve as the building blocks for civil war should cause them to be used only as a last resort. It is worth reiterating that this is only one step better than anarchy and should only be considered as a final choice. Once power is decentralized, it will be deeply difficult to recentralize.
  7. The United States needs to renounce interest in permanent bases in Iraq on a strong and continuing basis. Once a long-term basing agreement is formalized, it will become a festering grievance for Iraqi nationalists and will be criticized constantly by Iraqi and Arab World radicals. Since a primary U.S. goal is to empower the Iraqi government with legitimacy, such bases must be renounced as a way of reinforcing that legitimacy, which this monograph claims is a military necessity to achieve victory.
  8. 8. The United States needs to deemphasize rhetoric that may cause Iraqi citizens to believe their government has been put in place to wage war on U.S. enemies in the Muslim World and otherwise serve U.S. interests. If Iraq is the ?central front? in the war on terrorism, then it is part of a campaign that mainstream Muslims view as including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?s actions against the Palestinians and Russian President Vladimir Putin?s campaign against Chechnya. The United States does not need to burden the Iraqi government with the specter of collusion in what may be seen as anti-Muslim policies.
  9. U.S. leadership must recognize that it may still continue to support democracy after U.S. forces are withdrawn from Iraq, providing that the nation is stable when it leaves. The United States is expected to continue providing the Iraqi government with strong diplomatic and material support for its efforts. Following a U.S. departure, it is conceivable that the Iraqi military will be defeated if they show a lack of fighting spirit, but it is inconceivable that the United States should be willing to allow them to be defeated by a lack of military equipment and weaponry. As noted, materiel support will not save a failed military, but it might save a faltering military of a struggling government.
  10. U.S. leaders should continually note the courage, commitment, and sacrifice of our troops in the field, while realizing that these same qualities are reasons to safeguard their lives even more carefully. All future wars should have carefully planned exit strategies based on something other than best case planning for the future of the countries involved. In undertaking such plans, the United States must take care to maintain realistic expectations of what it can actually achieve with military intervention, especially with regard to the imposition of market economies and democracy on states that we do not fully understand. Goals for intervention might at times be maintained at a limited level and adjusted upwards if conditions permit rather than held to lofty high standards (such as total ?de-Ba?athification?) which conditions may later force the United States to compromise to extricate itself from a position of indefinite occupation.