Iraq: The Perils of Pulling Out

The battle lines may be clearer in Washington than in Iraq. A Democratic-controlled Congress wants to set a timetable for U.S. combat troops to get out of a fight the American public no longer supports. When he meets with congressional leaders this week, President George W. Bush will vow again to veto any such bill. And like the president, Republican Sen. John McCain—decorated veteran, presidential hopeful and stubborn supporter of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad—warns of apocalyptic consequences if there's a pullout.

"This is an historic choice, with ramifications for Americans not even born yet," McCain recently told students at Virginia Military Institute who were about to graduate from gray cadet uniforms to desert camouflage. A premature U.S. withdrawal would create "a Wild West for terrorists" who believe "we Americans are their ultimate target." For the Iraqis, warned McCain, a U.S. pullout would lead to "genocide" in which "we would be complicit."

He could well be right. In the Middle East, aid workers, regional leaders, Iraqi officials and ordinary civilians agree that if the Americans leave quickly, Iraq's disastrous condition could be made much worse. They warn of a massive flood of refugees heading for the borders, of massacres as Sunnis and Shiites cross paths, of a proxy war funded by Iran and Saudi Arabia within Iraq itself. "The consequences of [this] not working out are catastrophic," says an aid worker overseeing part of the U.N. relief effort in Iraq, who doesn't want to make any comment on the record that might sound political.

That's why the White House is asking for more time. The surge of more than 20,000 additional American troops that Bush announced earlier this year now looks to total well over 30,000, in addition to the 134,000 already in the country. To meet those numbers, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that the tours of many soldiers in Iraq would be extended. The idea is not that the troops will be able to end the insurgency quickly, but for them to tamp down the violence long enough for rebuilding and political reconciliation to take root. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," says David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency specialist who is part of the team pulled together by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.

Yet there's a growing sense among both America's allies and its enemies that U.S. combat troops, at least, will be out of Iraq by the end of next year. The House bill calls for withdrawal by August 2008; the Senate sets a nonbinding goal of March 31. But the bottom line is the same: goodbye to Baghdad. "The implosion of domestic support for the war will compel the disengagement of U.S. forces," writes Steven N. Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is now just a matter of time." West Point's Gen. Barry McCaffrey, after an intense week of briefings in Iraq last month, warns that the American military cannot sustain this level of commitment for much more than another year. The U.S. Army "is going to start to unravel" because it is stretched so thin by the war, he says.

These voices argue that while the White House might hope for the best, it ought to be planning for the worst. Political realities in Washington make that extremely difficult. "There is a real problem with talking about 'the day after' [a U.S. withdrawal]," says Simon, who served in the Clinton White House. "The minute you do, it's going to leak and you, the administration, will be characterized as having given up." Brookings analyst Kenneth M. Pollack recently coauthored a 130-page report on the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. The paper, titled "Things Fall Apart," received discreet support from the national-security bureaucracy. "But I'm a bit concerned," he says. "Before the invasion I was going around saying how important postwar reconstruction was, and I was dutifully reassured: 'We got it covered; we have all these planning cells.' Only to learn after the fact that these efforts were totally half-assed. I'm hearing very similar things now."

At the Pentagon, Gates says he is exploring fallback plans should the surge fail. "It would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be," he told Congress in February. But other than to say that the military would probably move U.S. troops "out of harm's way," Gates didn't get into specifics. A senior Army officer says that some work on withdrawal options has been farmed out to the Army's research arm, the Institute for Defense Analyses. According to a senior Coalition adviser in Baghdad, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, Iraqi officials like national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie have also been pushed to start planning for the day after. (Rubaie said he could not comment.)

In past wars, "the judgment of history," as McCain would say, has not been kind to those governments that failed to see how quickly time was running out. Former CIA officer Frank Snepp, whose book "Decent Interval" chronicled the fall of Saigon in 1975, sees direct parallels with the situation in Iraq today. "It was our failure to dare think the unthinkable in Vietnam that led to the chaos in the end," says Snepp. No fallback strategy existed once the U.S.-trained military started to collapse. No effective plans were made to evacuate the many thousands of Vietnamese who'd worked closely with the United States. As a result, scenes of people clinging to the skids of helicopters lifting off from the American Embassy in Saigon remain unforgettable images of defeat.

While no one can predict with certainty what course the Iraq conflict will take, Vietnam is only one of many examples of major powers' suddenly withdrawing from foreign fights. In almost every case, they made plans for peaceful transitions and "decent intervals," often accompanied by military surges of one sort or another, but what they left behind at the end of the day was carnage and chaos.


When the British gave up their long rule over India in 1947, the country was partitioned between Muslims and Hindus. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote bitterly afterward, "In seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,/A continent for better or worse divided." At least half a million people were killed and 12 million displaced. In Algeria in the 1950s, the French ran a brutal but effective counterinsurgency campaign that largely destroyed the guerrilla movement. But in 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle decided to give up on a long war that seemed to be headed for no final resolution. In the aftermath, France found itself inundated by refugees, not only some 900,000 former colonists of European background, but more than 90,000 Arabs who had worked with the government. Of an additional 100,000 who did not manage to escape, many met with savage reprisals.

In Vietnam in the 1970s, but also in Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s, the United States established a record of committing troops to a high-minded cause in a faraway land, while completely misjudging the nature and extent of local resistance. In every case, after disastrous setbacks the Americans vowed to show resolve while trying to shift the frontline combat duties to local forces. But the locals just couldn't—or wouldn't—do the job on their own, and the Americans who were left found themselves, finally, scrambling for the exits.

The central lesson in all these cases was not that withdrawal was a bad idea. Wise or not, it became inevitable. But the aftermath in every case was made worse by the fact that governments waited so long to admit that a pullout might be necessary. When the moment came, their hasty departures made the chaos that followed that much worse.

Think tanks in Washington have begun to explore those consequences for Iraq in detail. Pollack's report, coauthored with Daniel Byman, warns, "When the United States decides that reconstruction has failed and that all-out civil war in Iraq has broken out, the only rational course of action, horrific though it will be, is to abandon Iraq's population centers and refocus American efforts from preventing civil war to containing it." Many of the paper's broad recommendations are similar to those made by the Iraq Study Group chaired by former secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton last fall: work for regional peace and stability. Others are draconian suggestions tied to fears of disastrous events—for instance, to create a system of "buffer zones" to collect refugees at the borders.

Humanitarian workers like Andrew Harper of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shudder at such suggestions. Vast camps in the ferocious Iraqi desert would be difficult if not impossible to supply. Yet already more than 750,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, which had a population of only 6 million to begin with, and not enough water for those. Syria has taken in more than a million. The UNHCR and other agencies are stockpiling in Syria and especially Jordan to meet the needs of 200,000 more refugees. "The disaster is happening now," says Astrid van Genderen Stort at the UNHCR's office in Geneva.

For their part, Iraq's neighbors are worried the war will "turn into a kind of black hole sucking all the region into it," says Samir Tariq of the Al Sharq Center for Strategic Studies in Damascus. So they are beginning, albeit slowly in most cases, to secure their borders. The most striking case is Turkey, where Chief of the General Staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit called last week for a "military intervention" to destroy the bases of Kurdish guerrillas fighting the Ankara government. According to press reports, preparations for the offensive are already underway, with as many as 200,000 Turkish troops rolling toward the Iraqi frontier. Retired Turkish military officers, possibly reflecting the views of the current high command, have proposed creating a cordon sanitaire 25 to 30 miles deep in Iraqi territory.

Israeli analysts are similarly alarmed about the possibility of a sudden U.S. withdrawal. "The danger for Israel is the spillover of terrorism to Jordan," says one senior Israeli security official who declines to talk on the record. "They will try to reach Israel via Jordan." He argues that the Israeli Army should be fortifying the border with Jordan now. " [But] frankly speaking, there is no such planning."

Ultimately, even informal discussions of fallback options keep coming to the same conclusion: U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq—perhaps not in combat roles, but in large numbers nonetheless. Philip Zelikow, who formerly worked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, notes that the kind of "drawdown" being proposed by the Democrats "is easy to say, but the issue is, what are you going to withdraw?" The U.S. forces are vital to the Iraqi military's logistics and intelligence, and also act as a restraint. If the Americans pull back, the Iraqis "will end up fighting the war their way," says Zelikow, and that would be uglier than the conflict we have now.

Even Steven Simon, who strongly advocates disengagement, says that American and other international forces—once they pull out of Iraq—should be ready to go back in "for humanitarian intervention in the event that violence in Iraq becomes genocidal." The day after in Iraq may look a lot like the day before.

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