Withdrawal will require smart strategizing
Sixty-three percent of Americans think that we should withdraw some or all of our troops from Iraq now, according to a Sept. 16-18 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. It's time to at least start planning such a removal. But facing administration arguments that a timetable for withdrawal would give encouragement to the enemy (as if they need encouragement), no plans have been forthcoming. Neither the Republican administration nor the Democratic opposition has addressed the question of how we can get out of Iraq, let alone when.
An exit strategy does not require an explicit timetable. It does require, like dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that there is appropriate allocation of resources in advance, that a variety of contingencies is contemplated and that sequences of events are anticipated. There might be a variety of scenarios, and strategic planning is always probabilistic, but these are not reasons for not having a plan. Neither is not having an explicit start date for a withdrawal.
Plans exist somewhere. The U.S. military is adept at scenario-building, and analysts must have built scenarios that project the stages and methods for withdrawal. These scenarios are not available to the public and perhaps not even to Congress. But they are there. During the Cold War, extensive strategic planning was done for contingencies in case of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Those Pentagon planners haven't gone away.
What must these plans include? How long would it take to remove enough U.S. troops to make the public happy, say by the time of an election? There are a few questions that will have to be asked and answered before reasonable responses can be provided.
There are some assumptions that underlie any scenario other than a long-term plan to remain in Iraq for the indefinite future. The critical one is that Iraq might well divide into three countries -- one Shiite, one Sunni and one Kurd; three nations, three states. Democracy is a cultural phenomenon, not simply a constitutional one or an electoral one. Whenever the Americans leave Iraq, the system might devolve into hierarchical, patrimonial or tribal politics, as the territory was in the past. Culture takes time to change. It won't be legislated or imposed with 200-year-old Western models. Iraq might become chaos. Of course, Iraq is close to chaos now and we seem to be moving backward in political development. That said, Iraq will not become a part of the American empire. Someday we will have to go, regardless of the state of Iraq at the time. What will that departure involve?
Roughly 150,000 American troops are in Iraq, with some upward adjustments possible around Iraq's elections. A strategy for exiting Iraq will involve sequential steps, starting now, to withdraw even some U.S. troops. Here are just some of the pieces that would have to be laid out to actually make an exit from Iraq.
Step 1: Remove the war prisoners held in U.S. prisons in Iraq
There are 17 prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. They hold tens of thousands of prisoners who are a mixture of nationalist insurgents from several sides (Sunni and Shia), foreign fighters (terrorists) and criminals. Like at Abu Ghraib, there is a complete structure of prison management, with personnel performing everything from guard duty to health care. Some of the prisoners hate each other as well as the Americans (whom they refer to as "Jews") but they also have enemies on the outside. For the United States to walk away and leave the prisons to Iraqis could lead to a wholesale slaughter of one faction or another, depending on who took over. To simply empty the prisons would lead to the same result, just a different location. What is the plan to deal with perhaps 100,000 prisoners? We can't take them to Guantanamo.
Step 2: Protection for U.S. allies in the region
If the United States leaves Iraq, and especially if the al-Badr Shiite faction rises to dominance, Iraq could become a threat to Sunni regimes in the region. These allies of the United States, plus their oil resources, will have to be protected. Many U.S. forces will probably only be moved short distances in the Middle East and will have to be re-established in other nearby countries. How long will this take? Who will pay for it?
Step 3: Removal of U.S. economic interests
Most at the behest of the U.S. government, more than 1,000 U.S. businesses -- many small and medium-sized firms -- are operating in Iraq. If U.S. soldiers leave, the businesses will have to leave first. Since they are there with contracts, the contracts will have to be bought out. Who will renegotiate the contracts and who will pay for buying them out? Since many of them are performing critical functions such as maintaining oil production, building sewer systems and training Iraqis, who will replace them and how will this conversion occur? How long will it take? In addition to the physical assets, there are tens of thousands of foreign workers in Iraq, from as far away as the Philippines. Will they simply be told to get out? Or stay and risk the consequences?
Step 4: Termination of contracts and physical removal of private security contractors
Few people realize that there is a side of the war in Iraq being fought by what were described in an earlier time as "mercenaries." These are private soldiers who are employed on contract to provide security and perform special missions in Iraq. They are formally known as "private security contractors," or PSCs.
Daniel Bergner, writing in the New York Times in August, estimated that there were 25,000 PSCs in Iraq. The U.S. military cannot withdraw from Iraq and leave these PSCs behind. There are two reasons for this. The first is that violence would be focused on them, and they would likely be slaughtered if the country hasn't been pacified by the time U.S. forces leave. The second is political. The United States would not be seen as withdrawing its forces if it took out its regular forces but left behind soldiers in disguise. The American public knows little about "The Other Army," but others certainly do. Especially the nationalists in Iraq.
There are three elements to the removal of these forces. The first is obviously logistical. What will be the transportation questions involving the removal of 25,000 men and returning them to their home countries (not all are Americans) or shifting them to another location? The second is contracts. All of them are there under business contracts that cannot simply be cancelled. How will these contract renegotiations be handled and who will do it? How long will that take? The third is functional. These men provide security, including for the U.S. ambassador. Who will replace them and where will their replacements come from? These questions are never raised or addressed by the public strategists.
Step 5: Removal or destruction of advanced technology from military bases
Iraqis being trained to become the country's military are being armed by the United States. But they are being armed with weapons less sophisticated than those used by U.S. troops. The reason for this is that the United States doesn't want to leave weaponry or technology behind that could fall into the hands of a future enemy, in case the conversion to a unified Iraqi democracy goes wrong.
It stands to reason that the United States will have to remove both weapons and technology when it goes. Since the Uzbek government is forcing the closure of the U.S. airbase in Uzbekistan, the U.S. bases in Iraq (there are 14 "enduring" bases, according to John Pike, director of GlobalSecurities.org) have become more important and are being upgraded. That is, new technology and functions are now being shifted in. How long will it take and what will it cost to shift them out again?
Step 6: Transportation and relocation of U.S. and allied forces
It seems like a simple matter but moving 150,000 men and women can't happen overnight. Even if ships and aircraft were immediately available in the numbers needed, the process still could take a year or more. Just look at how long it took to put them there. Maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq involves the extra costs of fighting and surviving, but maintenance at home or at another location will cost something, too. There won't be any great savings in having the forces at another location, still on alert. Transportation and repositioning will cost plenty. Who is going to pay for it? More borrowing?
At this point in what seems like both a pointless and endless war, removing U.S. forces from Iraq has become an attractive political option. We are addressing only the simplest of questions in asking whether we want them out and when. The critical question is not one of will but rather of simple physical and financial ability. But until we map the sequence and begin the process of logistical and financial pre-positioning, nothing can happen. If we think dealing with the consequences of Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, wait until we try to bring the troops home.
Howell is senior research fellow at the Asia Pacific Risk Institute, College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii at Manoa.