As promised, the final installment of the Kahl-Katulis(-Lynch) debate about Iraq strategy. My final thoughts and summary to come a bit later. Thanks to everyone for contributing, reading, and commenting!
Brian Katulis: The Iraq Debate: Looking at the Broader Perspective
The history of the Middle East is filled with outside powers who tried to control events and forces inside the region that they did not fully understand. The experiences of the Roman, Ottoman, and British empires in the Middle East offer important lessons for those who offer well-intentioned strategies aimed at tinkering with volatile internal power balances and dealing with actors that have strategies marked in decades, rather than months.
Recent involvement by the United States in the region - including support for the Shah of Iran in the 1970s, the military engagement in Lebanon in the 1980s, and efforts to boost Iraq's Saddam Hussein versus Iran in the 1980s - demonstrate how the law of unintended consequences rules the day and unanticipated blowback can come back to haunt us. The current engagement in Iraq presents similar risks and difficult choices for U.S. security. It is in this historical context that one should evaluate any argument that makes a case for maintaining an extended U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
During the past week, Colin Kahl and I have had a constructive exchange on the difficult questions moving forward in Iraq - much more thoughtful than other exchanges in which conservatives seem to do little more than posture and spew empty rhetoric. Kahl and I agree on some key points - there are no good options moving forward on Iraq policy and internal dynamics in Iraq seem to be heading towards a heavily decentralized system; and disagree on others - like whether it makes strategic sense for the United States to maintain a military presence in Iraq for an extended period of time.
Much of our debate is over analysis, rather than a dispute of the facts. But one of Kahl's specific points requires a direct rejoinder - the issue of how long it would take to redeploy U.S. troops. In his post responding to me, he claims, "the CNAS paper was actually crafted in consultation with military planners whereas no military planner I know of thinks the pace of the U.S. withdrawal advocated by Katulis/CAP is logistically possible."
Here Kahl gets it wrong, or at least he needs to expand of military experts with whom he consults. The implication of his statement is that Center for American Progress did NOT consult with military planners, which is actually untrue. I'm sure he didn't mean to questions the credentials of respected individuals like my colleague Larry Korb, a former defense official in the Reagan administration who coauthored a detailed report on the logistics of redeployment, "How to Redeploy." (This is a report that received positive comments for its technical recommendations on the logistics of redeployment from numerous planners in the Pentagon and in Iraq, all of whom said what Korb proposes could be done). In addition to this report, Kahl should take a look at contributions here, here and here, just as a starting point, and there are more arguments and analysis that demonstrate that Kahl simply gets this point of how long it could take to practically get out of Iraq wrong.
With that logistical matter out of the way, in order to complete this exchange, it is important to take a step out of the Iraq trenches and look at the broader perspective. One key element missing from this exchange was the bigger strategic picture - an analysis of the broader context in which the United States is operating. On these levels, Kahl understates the costs and risks while overstating the benefits of his approach. The strains on U.S. military readiness, the impact that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq has on global terrorist networks, and the escalating financial bill for American taxpayers of staying engaged militarily at the levels Kahl suggests are significant.
Keeping large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq - at a time when our so-called coalition of the willing allies such as Britain are drawing down their force levels - places tremendous strains on our ground troops. The Army has lowered it recruiting standards to unprecedented levels, and the United States no longer has a strategic ground reserve as a result of the extended deployments.
Advocates for maintaining an extended U.S. troop presence in Iraq like Kahl forget the wise advice of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who once wrote, "If the army is exposed to a prolonged campaign, the nation's resources will not suffice... no nation has ever benefited from protracted warfare." A plan to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq - in support of goals that Kahl admits has little chance of being achieve - seems to be a bad option. (And these comments don't even address the question of whether our military has enough qualified trainers to serve in the roles that Kahl proposes they would in Iraq, which is a separate issue - it is not clear that we even have the capacity to do what Kahl proposes to do). Proposals for an extended military presence makes little sense at a time when the Iraq war threatens to break our all-volunteer military - a crisis so bad that the Army recently raised potential signing bonuses to $45,000. Of course, America is a country with considerable resources, and we could always institute a military draft if we needed to meet these challenges. But we also happen to be a democracy too, and the thought of instituting a military draft at a time when the Iraq war is deeply unpopular and the majority of Americans support withdrawing U.S. troops in a year seems improbable.
Beyond the strains on our military, there are other significant costs to U.S. national security that result from maintaining an extended troop presence. A National Intelligence Estimate released last year concluded that the U.S. military presence in Iraq was a boon for global Islamist extremists - that the Iraq war has increased radicalism and made the global terror threat worse. Leading terrorism analysts have argued that an extensive U.S. military presence in Iraq is not an effective way to deal with the terrorist threat there and that the costs to the broader global battle are high - leading some like Steven Simon to reach conclusions similar to ours at the Center for American Progress - that military disengagement from Iraq is the most sensible option when one considers the full range of our country's strategic interests.
Beyond the military and national security costs, a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq also has major financial implications for the United States - again all for achieving a low probability of success, as Kahl admits. To date, we've spent at least $600 billion in Iraq, and our open-ended troop presence costs anywhere from $8-$10 billion a month. One recent estimate put the financial costs of Iraq and Afghanistan so far at $20,000 for a family of four. In an era of tax cuts and fiscal imbalances, this of course is a strategy being paid for with borrowed money from overseas, further weakening America's position in the world.
All of this adds up to significant strategic costs - for a plan that as Marc Lynch and I have pointed out is not likely to achieve the equilibrium that Kahl argues would result inside of Iraq. So not only are the tactics proposed by Kahl unlikely to achieve his stated goals, the strategic costs to U.S. national security are not worth the benefits.
One other important point to note -simply slapping a "responsible" label on proposals does not exonerate analysts from actually owning up to some very grim consequences of some of the policies that they espouse. Many of the negative consequences feared by those who oppose U.S. troop redeployment from Iraq have already occurred just as U.S. troop levels were INCREASING in Iraq. When historians look back on 2006-2007 in Iraq, they will see this as a period when massive campaigns of sectarian cleansing were underway - killing thousands, displacing millions more, and resulting in the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948.
When one consider that the current policy of supporting "bottom up" security initiatives means that the U.S. military is actually cooperating with sectarian cleansers and in some cases serial murderers - as Jon Lee Anderson's excellent piece in the New Yorker highlights - then it raises questions about who is being "responsible." So instead of posturing about who is most "responsible" and "serious" about "U.S. interests" when we debate Iraq, it is probably better to just say that we agree there are no good options on Iraq and engage in the debate on its merits and facts.
In 2003, the Bush administration and its supporters made one of the greatest strategic national security blunders in the history of our country by leaving a mission unaccomplished in Afghanistan and taking the country into an unnecessary war of choice in Iraq. This slide to war was aided and abetted by foreign policy analysts of all partisan stripes who failed to ask the tough questions and challenge the assumptions behind going into Iraq. It is now equally important to debate the arguments behind maintaining an enduring and extensive U.S. military presence in Iraq. Instead of minor tactical adjustments to the current strategy - with shifts in training Iraqi security forces, the United States in essence needs to hit the "CTRL-ALT-DELETE" button - in a Strategic Reset of our entire approach to the Middle East. Continuing to tinker on the margins with small shifts in policy are not likely to lead to a sustainable political settlement to Iraq's conflicts, and they are not going to improve America's position in the world.