Timeslines for defeat

Frederick Kagan:

Some aspects of war are complex and hard to understand, but others are very easy. As the discussion about Iraq swirls over the next month, it is essential to keep one simple fact in mind: Setting hard-and-fast timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces or imposing arbitrary caps on the size of those forces is equivalent to accepting failure in Iraq, with all its consequences. Nonetheless, there are many, including many in Congress, who think that success in Iraq is compatible with inflexible timelines. It is not; inflexible timelines will lead inevitably to defeat.

The Bush administration, its generals, and external proponents of the current strategy have been clear from the outset: the surge of forces in Iraq is, and was always, intended to be temporary. Its primary aim was to establish security for the people of Iraq (and clearly, it is succeeding in that aim). After security had been brought to a tolerable and stable level, it was expected that the Iraqi government could begin to make significant progress toward political reconciliation at the national level. In the meantime, Coalition forces would continue to work to increase the size of the Iraqi Security Forces, and to improve the quality of those forces. The expectation since the start of the surge has been that as both security and the capabilities of the ISF improved, it would become possible to begin to reduce American forces in Iraq, most likely sometime in 2008. All indicators on the ground now suggest that we are on track to achieving this goal.

The key point is that the reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq, according to this plan, will be driven by changes in the circumstances on the ground. Only when and where the ISF is able to take over maintaining security, will the American forces, accordingly, be able to pull back. In places where the ISF is not yet able to do so, the U.S. forces will remain. The decisions rest with the commanders on the ground who alone can evaluate these conditions.

The American commanders, with whom these decisions reside, are fully cognizant of the strains the deployments are placing on the armed forces (they should know best, after all, since most of them are now serving their second, third, or fourth tours in Iraq or Afghanistan). Drawing on the evidence gathered in the course of their own frequent visits to U.S. and Iraqi units, combined with the intelligence at their disposal, American commanders in Iraq are uniquely qualified to offer an assessment. The only reason they would oppose withdrawing American troops from a given area is that they believe such a withdrawal would harm the mission, lead to in increase in violence and terrorist activity, and place American interests in danger.

People pushing for time lines are demonstrating their ignorance of warfare and/or their pandering to those who are easily beaten. No responsible person who wants to win the war would set a time line for leaving the battle space before the job is finished. Can you imagine war being conducted by union rules where the troops punch out at five p.m. everyday regardless of what the enemy is doing? That is in effect what the proponents of time lines are pushing.

It is also a mistake that deadlines will pressure the Iraq government. The pressure is going to come from below as the grass roots reconciliation process peculates up through the system. There are too many structural impediments in the current Iraqi government that thwart top down progress. There also appears too much ignorance in Washington and in the media of those structural impediments.


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