How to Exit Iraq

The Washington Post

The administration and its critics seem to agree that the beginning of an American withdrawal from Iraq will mark a turning point. What divides them is the speed and extent of the drawdown and whether it should be driven by a timetable or by a strategy that seeks to shape events.

Though often put into technical terms, the issue is not the mechanics of withdrawal. Rather, the debate should be over consequences: whether, in the end, withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat or as an aspect of a prudent and carefully planned strategy designed to enhance international security. Whatever one's view of the decision to undertake the Iraq war, the method by which it was entered, or the strategy by which it was conducted – and I supported the original decision – one must be clear about the consequences of failure. If, when we go, we leave nothing behind but a failed state and chaos, the consequences will be disastrous for the region and for America's position in the world.

For the phenomenon of radical Islam is more than the sum of individual terrorist acts extending from Bali through Jakarta to New Delhi, Tunisia, Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca, Madrid and London. It is an ideological outpouring by which Islam's radical wing seeks to sweep away secularism, pluralistic values and Western institutions wherever Muslims live. Its dynamism is fueled by the conviction that the designated victims are on the decline and lack the will to resist.

Any event that seems to confirm these convictions compounds the revolutionary dynamism. If a fundamentalist regime is installed in Baghdad or in any of the other major cities, such as Mosul or Basra, if terrorists secure substantial territory for training and sanctuaries, or if chaos and civil war mark the end of the American intervention, Islamic militants will gain momentum wherever there are significant Islamic populations or nonfundamentalist Islamic governments. No country within reach of jihad would be spared the consequences of the resulting upheavals sparked by the many individual centers of fanaticism that make up the jihad.

Defeat would shrivel U.S. credibility around the world. Our leadership and the respect accorded to our views on other regional issues from Palestine to Iran would be weakened; the confidence of other major countries – China, Russia, Europe, Japan – in America's potential contribution would be diminished. The respite from military efforts would be brief before even greater crises descended on us.

A disastrous outcome is defined by the global consequences, not domestic rhetoric. President Bush has put forward a plausible strategy. It acknowledges that policy has been leavened by experience. But the crescendo of demands for a timetable suppresses the quality of patience that history teaches is the prerequisite for overcoming guerrilla warfare. Even an appropriate strategy can be vitiated if it is executed in too precipitate a manner.

The views of critics and administration spokesmen converge on the proposition that as Iraqi units are trained, they should replace U.S. forces – hence the controversy over which Iraqi units are in what state of readiness. But strategy based on substituting Iraqi for U.S. troops may result in perpetuating an unsatisfactory stalemate. Even assuming that the training proceeds as scheduled and produces units the equivalent of the U.S. forces being replaced – a highly dubious proposition – I would question the premise that American reductions should be in a linear relationship to Iraqi training. A design for simply maintaining the present security situation runs the risk of confirming the adage that guerrillas win if they do not lose.

The better view is that the first fully trained Iraqi units should be seen as increments to coalition forces and not replacements, making possible the deployment of forces toward the frontiers to curtail infiltration, as well as accelerated offensive operations aimed at the guerrilla infrastructure. Such a strategy would help remedy the shortage of ground forces, which has slowed anti-guerrilla operations throughout the occupation. While seemingly more time-consuming, it would present better opportunities for stabilizing the country and would thus provide a more reliable exit route.

The combat performance of new units cannot be measured by training criteria alone. The ultimate metrics – to use Pentagon terminology – are to what extent they are motivated toward agreed political goals. What they fight for will determine how well they fight.

A responsible exit strategy must emerge from the systematic integration of political and security elements – above all, the consolidation of the national government. Real progress will have been made when the Iraqi armed forces view themselves – and are seen by the population – as defenders of the nation's interest, not sectarian or regional interests. They will have become a national force when they are able to carry the fight into Sunni areas and grow willing to disarm militias in the Shiite regions from which the majority of them are recruited.

To delegate to military commanders the judgments as to the timing of withdrawals therefore places too great a burden on them. Their views regarding security need to be blended with judgments regarding the political and collateral consequences that a major initiative inevitably produces. Such a balance presupposes that all sides in our domestic debate adopt a restraint imposed on us by awareness of the grave consequences of failure.

The psychological impact, most immediately on the Iraqi political structure, will be crucial. Will the initial reductions – set to begin sometime after last week's elections – be viewed as the first step of an inexorable process to rapid and complete withdrawal? Or will they be seen as a stage of an agreed process dependent on tangible and definable political and security progress? If the former, the political factions in Iraq will maneuver to protect their immediate assets in preparation for the expected test of strength between the various groups. The incentive to consider American preferences for a secular and inclusive government in a unified Iraq will shrink. It will be difficult to broaden the base of a government at the very moment it thinks it is losing its key military support. In these circumstances, even a limited withdrawal not formally geared to a fixed timetable and designed to placate American public opinion could acquire an irreversible character.

If the experience of Vietnam is any guide, the numbers of returning troops could, in such an atmosphere, turn into the principal domestic test of successful U.S. policy. Pressures to continue or accelerate the withdrawals could be magnified so that the relationship to the political criteria of progress would be lost. A process driven by technical or domestic criteria might evoke a competition between Iraqi factions to achieve nationalist credit for accelerating the U.S. withdrawal, perhaps by turning on us either politically or with some of their militia.

The United States intervened in Iraq to protect the region's security and its own. But it cannot conclude that process without anchoring it in some international consensus. Geopolitical realities will not disappear from a region that has lived with them and suffered from them for millennia and that has drawn U.S. military forces into their vortex in Lebanon in the 1950s and 1980s, in Afghanistan in 2001 and in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and 2003 – and has caused two U.S. military alerts (over the Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970 and the Arab-Israeli war in 1973). The passions, convictions and rivalries of the factions in Iraq will continue. A regional system will emerge in that country in one form or another through our interaction, either with these forces or through our default. In that sense, Americans must accept the reality that their country can never make a total political withdrawal, though the size and location of the military presence will vary. It will always have to meld political and security objectives if the predominance of radical states is to be avoided.

The countries that are relevant to Iraq's security and stability or that consider their security and stability affected by the emerging arrangements must be given a sense of participation in the next stage of Iraq policy. The developing political institutions in Iraq need to be built into an international and regional system – not out of obeisance to a theoretical multilateralism but because otherwise America will have to function alone as the permanent policeman, a role that any projected Iraqi government is likely to reject in the long run and that the very debate discussed in this article inhibits.

The time has come not only to define the strategic future in Iraq but also to broaden the base of political consultation in the region at large. A political contact group including key European allies, India (because of its Muslim population), Pakistan, Turkey and some neighbors of Iraq should be convoked after the Iraqi election. Political discussions between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and Iranian authorities regarding Iraq have already been approved.

These cannot be the sole contacts with Baghdad's neighbors. The functions of the contact group would be to advise on the political evolution of Iraq, to broaden the basis of legitimacy of the government and to reflect a broad international interest in the stability and progress of the region. As time goes on, the group could become a forum to deal with other issues affecting Middle East stability, including some of the causes of Islamic radicalism. A political framework is not a substitute for a successful military outcome, but military success cannot be long sustained without it.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is chairman of Kissinger Associates.