In his Iraq speech tonight, President Obama has an opportunity to explain to Americans how the United States and Iraq got to the point where the combat mission had to end by a date certain and explain how his administration can apply these lessons to the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan.
Conventional wisdom among America’s foreign policy establishment is that setting deadlines for troop withdrawals from war zones are detrimental for U.S. national security. But this foreign policy establishment is just as wrong about why America is leaving Iraq by a date certain as they were about why we had to go to war in Iraq in the first place.
The narrative constructed by those who advocated that the U.S. increase, or surge, of more troops into Iraq in 2007 goes something like this: President Bush’s troop increase demonstrated that our commitment was open-ended and allowed the military to implement a real counterinsurgency strategy that paved the way to “victory.” But a closer examination of the facts demonstrates that the opposite is true — in Iraq, violence declined because more Iraqis perceived that U.S. troops were leaving and took appropriate action.
Deadlines for a strategic redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq — initially proposed in 2005 by leaders like former Representative Jack Murtha, championed by Democrats in Congress and candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, and outlined by the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group — all sent the important signal that Iraqis needed to take greater responsibility and ownership of their own affairs. The message that America’s commitment to Iraq was not open-ended motivated forces such as the Sunni Awakenings in Anbar province to partner with the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda in 2006, a movement that began long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces.
The message that Americans were leaving also motivated Iraqis to sign up for the country’s security forces in record numbers. The “surge” of U.S. troops to Iraq was only a modest increase of about 15 percent — and smaller if one takes into account the reduced number of other foreign troops, which fell from 15,000 in 2006 to 5,000 by 2008. In Anbar province, the most violent area, only 2,000 troops were added.
During that same period, the size of the Iraqi forces doubled, the result of training programs accelerated under General George Casey, the predecessor of General David Petraeus. Casey’s much-maligned efforts beginning in 2004 to place greater responsibility in the hands of the Iraqi security forces and finally getting permission from the Bush administration to put former Sunni insurgents on the U.S. payroll in late 2006 were actually more central to progress in Iraq than what Petraeus did when he took command in 2007. In fact, Casey’s Marine Deputy remarked that had Casey remained in office until the end of 2007, he, rather than Petraeus, would have received credit for the turnaround.
Deadlines for getting the U.S. out of Iraq were not only supported by the Iraqi people but also by the Iraqi government. When the UN mandate that allowed the U.S. to occupy Iraq expired in December 2008, the Maliki government, which had opposed the surge, agreed to allow the U.S. forces to remain in Iraq only on condition that we withdraw from the cities and towns by June 30, 2009 and from Iraq completely by December 2011. In fact, when U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq’s cities and towns, Maliki not only declared a national holiday — National Sovereignty Day — but proclaimed that the Iraqi people had repelled the foreign (U.S.) invaders.
Those opposed to ending the combat mission in Iraq by August 31, 2010, for fear of emboldening the enemy, ignore four facts. First, for all practical purposes the U.S. combat role ended a year ago when our forces withdrew to their bases. Second, since that withdrawal, despite some spectacular attacks, the overall level of violence against U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians has declined. Third, the enemy, or Al Qaeda in Iraq, is not a large conventional force. At most it is composed of a couple of thousand fighters, a threat which the Iraqi Security Forces, which number well over 600,000, should be able to handle on their own if they have the proper motivation. Finally, even when we leave Iraq, U.S. forces will remain in the region. Therefore, if there is an external threat, we can help the Iraqis deal with it.
What does this experience tell us for Afghanistan? Not setting a deadline fosters moral hazard and a dysfunctional dependency on the United States. Also, a deadline accelerates the process of helping local actors achieve a more sustainable balance of power within their own country without relying on the crutch of foreign troops. Finally, a deadline focuses attention and motivates actors to take control of their own affairs — they are also essential for getting sometimes sluggish U.S. government bureaucracies to produce results.
Therefore, in his speech Obama should point out that his decision to begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 remains firm and that it offers the best hope for us and the Afghan people because it will motivate them to take control of their own affairs and increase their own security forces. Moreover, just as we partnered with former insurgents in Iraq who turned against foreign fighters or those who supported foreign fighters, we can do the same in Afghanistan. Finally, we will maintain sufficient military capabilities in the region to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing themselves within the country or expanding their influence within the region.
Brian Katulis and Lawrence J. Korb are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress.