Withdrawal from Iraq

Statement of the Honorable Francis J. West, former Assistant Secretary of Defense, before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives

Subject: Withdrawal from Iraq

July 25, 2007

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member and Members: It is an honor to appear before this subcommittee. The subject today is "Alternatives for Iraq". The President and the Congress agree about the desirability of a withdrawal of US forces; the issue is under what conditions. It makes a vast difference to our self-esteem as a nation, to our reputation around the world and to the morale of our enemies whether we say we are withdrawing because the Iraqi forces have improved or because we have given up.

That issue towers above any discussion of tactics, logistics diplomacy or even timing. The Iraqi Study Group and former Secretary of State Kissinger have suggested that negotiations might yield an honorable withdrawal - some sort of compromise that extracts American soldiers while not precipitating a collapse inside Iraq. But it's not clear what convergence of interests with Iran or Syria would persuade them to cease supporting insurgents. And inside Iraq, the Jesh al Mahdi extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) must be destroyed, not placated.

Separate from AQI, though, there are a dozen other Iraqi insurgent groups. At the local level, there have been productive negotiations with the tribes, undoubtedly including some of these insurgents. These bottom-up understandings, focused against AQI, occurred because military action changed the calculus of the tribes about who was going to win. Successful negotiations flowed from battlefield success, not the other way around.

In Anbar, our commander, Major General Walt Gaskin, believes we have turned the corner, with weekly incidents dropping from 428 in July of '06 to 98 in July of '07. In Baghdad and its outskirts, that's exactly what General Petraeus intends to do with his surge strategy - bring security to the local level and break the cycle of violence.

America is divided between two schools of thought about Iraq. The first school - let's call them the Anti-Terror Camp - identifies the jihadists as the main enemy. General Petraeus has said that "Iraq is the central front of al Qaeda's global campaign." AQI is "public enemy number one" because it slaughters thousands of innocent Shiites in order to provoke a civil war. CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden believes that a US failure in Iraq will result "in a safe haven (for al Qaeda) from which then to plan and conduct attacks against the West".

Although AQI is a minority insurgent faction, it is unmatched in savagery. I watched Fallujah descend into hell when the Marines pulled back in May of 2004. Our troops called it the "M & I" campaign: Murder and Intimidation on an astonishing scale. In this war, the moral is to the physical as 20 to one. Most of the Iraqi forces and the tribes don't have yet the self-confidence and experience to stand alone against those killers.

Al Qaeda, however, is losing heavily in Anbar, is on the defense in Baghdad and is fleeing north toward Baqubah. The Anti-Terror Camp believes that fracturing AQI and the Jesh al Mahdi death squads will set the conditions that enable US withdrawal, leaving Iraqi forces to enforce reasonable stability, albeit with continued violence. Based on my observations in a half dozen Sunni cities and in Baghdad over the years, I subscribe to the Anti-Terror Camp.

The Sectarian Camp, on the other hand, believes Iraq is being torn apart by religion, not terrorism. Removing the terrorists will not remove the root cause of the violence. An intransigent hostility between the Shiites and Sunnis will lead inevitably to a full civil war and sweeping ethnic cleansings - regardless of the current surge. So we should get out, because the situation is hopeless.

It is problematic whether the sectarian conflict has metastasized into the body polity, and the top levels of the Iraqi government have certainly performed poorly. But if we declare we're leaving on that account, chaos will ensue. When President Thieu in 1975 pulled back just one division, the whole country erupted in panic. If we pull out because we say the Iraqi government has failed, Prime Minister Maliki will pull back and retrench his forces. When he does, the potential for panic flashing across the country in a few days is real.

Iraq has a wide-open highway network that facilitates spontaneous mass movement. In April of 2004, I was with the task force of 200 armored vehicles that General Mattis sent 200 miles, from north of Ramadi all the way around Baghdad, in order to stop the pandemonium and armed bands spontaneously cascading down the highways. This will happen again if we leave before the Iraqi Army is ready to take over.

Conversely, if we believe the Iraqi forces are dominating the insurgents and can contain the centrifugal forces of the Shiite militias, then we'll withdraw combat units beginning in 2008 -- but leave a hefty presence behind. I am referring to advisers, logisticians and anti-terror combat units. We have 24,000 soldiers in Afghanistan; we would need many more than that in Iraq for years to come. Personally, I'd like to see us say we plan on having American troops in Iraq indefinitely - and repeat that every time we withdrew some of our troops. I'd like to undercut AQI's morale by saying, we're going to continue killing and imprisoning you until there are none of you left.

In summary, I would make four points.

First, General Petraeus is our wartime leader. He has a smart, experienced staff. He will provide to you a fulsome, balanced assessment in September - far superior to anything you will hear in the interim.

Second, how you, our elected leaders, depict our withdrawal will have profound consequences. To a very large extent, you will shape the narrative, determining how our great nation is perceived and how friends and enemies respond to us.

Third, if the rationale for withdrawal is because Iraq seems hopeless, then leaving behind a residual force is fraught with peril. You cannot quit, and expect to manage what happens after you quit. Iraq, if it perceives it is being abandoned, could fly apart quickly.

Fourth, the rationale for withdrawal drives everything that comes thereafter. Why are we withdrawing? Is it because we as a nation have given up, concluding that full-scale civil war is inevitable; or has our military succeeded, allowing Iraqi forces to maintain stability?

I do not see a compromise "middle ground" between those two rationales.

Thank you.

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House Armed Services Committee

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Comments

jkhoohah wrote:

President ... actually believe the surge will work completely in the next year and a half? If so, his advisors are doing him a disservice. The surge may improve things but the Presidents goals and objectives cannot be attained by the Nov 2008 election.

The only goal / objective that needs to be met is a DRASTIC reduction in attacks against US/coalition forces.

It's the casualties that are fueling the desire to leave. If there were zero casualties, US troops could stay in Iraq forever.

Did the US public know or care how many troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia from 1991-2003 or how many are in the Balkans now and for the last 10 years?

Since the military is finally doing counter insurgency right, I think a drastic reduction is attainable in the next year, especially if the Iraqis believe the US won't bail out like it did with South Vietnam.

With a drastic reduction, there won't be call for a withdrawal.

Walrus.

Not the Pentagon, not their job. CentCom's and you can bet on it.

I think your last paragraph is way too pessimistic. We'll have to wait and see... :)

The discussion of withdrawing from Iraq overlooks one possibility that I think should be added, if only for completeness.

That possibility is that we may have no choice in the matter and are forced to withdraw against our will, and at a time not of our own choosing, by a combination of domestic and international economic, military and political factors.

I would like to think that somewhere in the Pentagon there is an "emergency exit" plan that preserves the bulk of our materiel and ensures that a withdrawal does not become a rout.

The only outcome of withdrawal that is absolutely certain is going to be the creation of an Iraqi refugee minority group in the United States, exactly as happened with Vietnam.

As for other outcomes, I have no idea, except to offer my own law based on years of patient observation: "Governments usually achieve the exact reverse of their stated intentions."

That suggests an emboldened Iran, Syria and Al Qaeeda, increased insecurity for Israel and Saudi Arabia, moderate Gulf States and Westward flowing oil supplies.

I'm personally convinced that Bush had no intention of having all his goals and objectives reached by the time he left office; thus the unseemly rush to get in there prior to the 2004 election. My perception is that he wanted to -- and certainly has -- tied the US to his strategy which is a long term bleed.

You are correct that the Army failed in a number of respects in the lead in to and the immediate post invasion in the Iraqi operation. You are also correct in saying that we teach lessons learned in all of our great professional military education forums, and still end up repeating the same mistakes -- that is due to egos more than any one thing but our political (both civil and military) systems and processes do not help this one iota.

You presume the Democrats will win in 2008; possible, it certainly seems the election is theirs to lose. So, however, was that in 2004.

All that is a lead in to this -- do not expect too significant a change (if much of any) in "Iraq strategy" regardless of who wins in 2008. Amazing how the candidates say one thing while campaigning then get elected, get all the classified briefings after they become the Pesident-elect and suddenly start backing and filling. I've watched virtually all of them do that over the last 50 plus years. I expect no different in 2008...

By the way the domino theorists were correct in their idea that if Vietnam fell so will the rest of the region. There was also a tremendous amount of human slaughter that came with the change in the region. As communism's ideological bankruptcy became apparent the formerly communist regimes did moderate and come much closer to western norms. The real question is: was the communist's revolutionaries' success really a foregone conclusion or did we have a chance at stabilizing S. Vietnam and perhaps the region which could have potentially spared well over 1,000,000 innocent people from brutal, premature deaths. That question is unfortunately doomed to the what if pile. The situation was simply too complicated even in hindsight to answer with any certainty.

jkhooah

I agree with quite a bit of that post. I would point out that there was significant resistance to Rumsfeld's plan among our top generals early on. The problem was that the naysayers (led by Shinseki) were dismissed or otherwise silenced.

I think Petreaus' strategy has at least a fair chance of yielding some significant advances in the next 18 months. The overall mission will take a similarly applied commitment of at least a couple more years though. The only hope for Iraq is that our current policies' successes over the next year and a half will be enough to defeat or largely discredit the defeatist's arguments.

gwnorth

When I said Iran and Syria were interested in keeping us bogged down to a point, I meant that their interests would be served much better by a loyal Shia dominated Iraq free of US influence. The current interest of us being bogged down will be rendered moot because the pursuit of their larger interest will begin in earnest.

Iranian and Syrian meddling can be taken as an unavoidable given for the foreseeable future but there is no reason why their meddling need result in our failure. Our failure would however result in their meddling turning into much more entrenched influence.

The conditions of our withdrawal certainly do matter. If we can create a reasonably stable Iraq where all the major players realize that their future lies with the Iraqi government then we will be able to withdraw largely on our own terms. That would necessarily involve a settling of the major political grievances and a domestic security force capable of enforcing the central government's will.

If we leave before that is achieved our current allies/partners in Iraq will immediately forge new alliances or get the f out of d. Everyone in Iraq has been hedging their bets/relationships based on what outcome they see as most likely/preferable. If it becomes generally accepted that we will be leaving a power vacuum the various actors in Iraq that were our partners would continue helping us at their own peril and will have to quickly shift allegiances to maximize their individual or group's collective probability of retaining and/or attaining power. When the US no longer dictates the terms of power the other regional actors will. The regional Sunni powers will line up behind the Sunni population and vice verse. Instead of having one primary unaligned power source you will have opposed power sources with undetermined dominance.

Should we announce an early departure, alliances will begin shifting accompanied by a significant escalation of the sectarian conflict. Iraq will very quickly become a much, much more dangerous place for Americans. The notion that we can stop fighting those that are trying to fan the flames of the civil conflict and withdraw to bases where we only train Iraqis and hunt terrorists is pure fiction for a number of reasons. In all likelihood our only mission in the event of an early draw down would be force protection while we watch the country burn and we pack up as quickly and orderly as possible(3-4yrs).

If the situation does escalate we will be hard pressed to keep out of the conflict. There is a very good chance that the mere presence of American forces in Iraq regardless of their mission will forestall any direct involvement (troops on the ground or planes in the air) of the regional players. If a regional war does break out though we will not be able to remain uninvolved.

jkjooah implied that the Constitution was somehow being molested. When I said that Congress can rescind authorization or cut funding I did not mean to imply that such measures were currently within the realm of political reality only that none of the constraints against them doing so have anything to do with the Constitution being violated. In fact the constraints against them taking such a course have everything to do with the proper functioning of the US government as laid out by the Constitution. Say the Executive with the backing of the military threatened to dissolve Congress if a measure cutting funding was passed. That case would be an actual violation of the Constitution. jkhooah seems to think that the Constitution is violated when a simple majority of Congress cannot outweigh the President's executive powers. The Constitution was designed so that the President's veto cannot be overturned by a simple majority in Congress. It is in fact jkhooah's apparent desires that represent a perversion of the Constitution and not our current situation.

Hopefully that clarifies the points brought into question, and I agree, Turkey's course over the next decade or so will be very interesting to watch.

Review your history Liontooth. We were losing all of these countries beforehand. Congress did finally suspend funding effective August 1973. Our withdrawal merely accelerated the inevitable win by the Communists. Ironically, the Vietnamese became the stabilizing influence as they invaded Cambodia, took out the Khmer Rouge; and gave the Chinese a bloody nose on their northern border. Now we have normalized relations and movement to the free market with many of our high tech corporations locating there. Our senior political and military leaders never predicted this. We also know that Congress doesnt have the courage to pull the funding plug on Iraq. The President knows this and therein lies the problem... ..does he actually believe the surge will work completely in the next year and a half? If so, his advisors are doing him a disservice. The surge may improve things but the Presidents goals and objectives cannot be attained by the Nov 2008 election. Time is simply not on our side and its exacerbated by all players involved. We should have had General Petraeus strategy right after the statue fell in 2003. Our senior military officers are remiss for this, and for not having the guts to say so to Rumsfield. We teach lessons learned in all of our great professional military education forums, and still end up repeating the same mistakes. We also have the shameless retired Generals speaking up after the fact and running to the media. Thats not honorable whatsoever. (General Singlaub was the only one with guts when he challenged President Carter over Korea in the mid 70s). Bottom line, the Iraq strategy will change when the Democrats win in Nov 2008.

John-Michael

I agree with 99% of what you said. Only two things made me wonder...

On Iran and Syria, you said: After all it is up to us when we leave and not them.

Technically, this is true. The U.S. chooses when to withdraw its troops. But how withdrawal happens matters (logistically; security situation; danger to withdrawing forces and residual forces). Iran/Syria can certainly affect that.

Plus, I think jkhoohah's point was that for as long as the U.S. is in Iraq (for whatever good reasons), it may be helping the interests of Iran and Syria. I don't see how that's rendered "moot" by withdrawal, if you're arguing the U.S. stick around (barring inevitable civil war).

The second thing was your note that Congress can rescind their authorization or cut the purse strings at anytime.

Do war critics on the Hill really have the votes to rescind their authorization? Open question. Agreed they could cut funding, though I'm not sure the public is there yet, and the consequences of that move could be disastrous not only politically, but more importantly strategically.

On the question of Turkey and EU, by the way, I did a little digging. Seems like more Turks are against EU membership than are for it, though that didn't used to hold the government back. Europeans are split on the issue, but as far as I can tell more countries than not would welcome Turkey in. The opponents, though, are pretty adamant. Will be interesting to see how the "ascendancy of Islamist parties" may widen the cultural/socio-economic divide between Europe and Turkey...

jkhoohah

"hysterically cite doom and gloom"

I would be very interested in your arguments as to exactly why those assessments are hysterical.

It is true that no one can predict with certainty what will happen, but there are guesses and there are educated guesses.

The assumptions made above are not based on ideology or political preference but on well grounded, consistent historical precedence. What are your assumptions based on?

When have opposing factions been content to allow a power vacuum to exist while they calmly work out their differences?
When have neighboring states and regional hegemon wannabes ever stayed out of civil war especially when there are vital economic resources at stake with opposing powers having tribal, cultural, religious, and ideological bonds with opposing factions?
What would lead you to believe that there will not be a civil war with the regional players becoming involved?
What civil wars with intermixed sectarian groups have not resulted in horrific ethnic cleansing?

It is possible that there may be a relatively peaceful settling of differences, but that would be a historically unprecedented event. I just wonder what is making you place your bets on the never before scenario, and why you accuse those of us relying on historical precedent as resulting to hysterics.

You also bring up the point that it is in Iran's and Syria's interest to bog the US down. To a point I would agree, but it would seem that thought becomes a moot point as soon as we begin withdrawing. After all it is up to us when we leave and not them.

Liontooth is correct when he says the Constitution has not been violated or perverted. Congress can rescind their authorization or cut the purse strings at anytime.

It would be a miscalculation for Turkey to use excessive violence on the Kurds in light of Turkey's current stated EU aspirations. These aspirations eminate from the secularist/middle class/urban population that has been in power and has the support of the military. The ascendancy of the Islamist parties in Turkey changes the equation significantly but who knows exactly how? How moderate will the Islamists remain? Are the Islamists willing to ignore the populist desires of the rural and underprivileged that are their base by making the further secular advances/Islamist sacrifices necessary to continue moving to the EU? How far will the military allow the Islamists go before staging a coup? How much of the military has moved towards an Islamist point of view especially among the more junior officers? Do the majority of Turks even want to be included in Europe?
In short, Turkey's situation is far too complicated to assume that they will adhere to a course that might, just maybe get them in the EU which by most accounts doesn't really want them anyway.

The point on Turkey was that there will likely be military involvement in northern Iraq. If the Kurds appear less formidable and the Shia are doing well against the Sunnis Kirkuk will become very attractive to the Shia and Iran. The Turks are Sunni although historically much more moderate than the Wahhabis of the Kingdom of Saud. I am not suggesting that it is likely that the Turks will be drawn into a larger conflict, only that when you open the door to war and chaos there is no telling how far things might go. There are so many conflicting interests and allegiances of all stripes throughout the region that there is no telling where things will stop. No one wanted World War I but it happened all the same.

We have a tendency to think that big wars cannot happen anymore. The relative peace among major powers over the last half century was largely do to the Cold War and the massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by both sides. We think that the new order of international interconnectedness makes war unthinkable. That may be true for wars between the major power blocks, but there is really no reason for that to hold true for regional conflicts that the major power blocks are not willing to enter.

jkhooah wrote:
What does the Constitution have to do with staying in Iraq? It only governs all of our actions under the rule of law and it specifically charges the Congress to declare war.
...with Congress "authorizing" the President through a resolution and not a formal Declaration of War.

And what would be the difference? Congress authorized the President to use force. There's nothing that specifies the use of the word 'war'. Congress has continued to fund military actions in Iraq. So exactly how is the Constitution not being respected?

jkhooah wrote:
...provide faulty dilemmas that, much like the old domino theory, hysterically cite doom and gloom at every turn.

The US military withdrew from South Vietnam in 1973. You're denying the subsequent collapse of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam afterward?

What does the Constitution have to do with staying in Iraq? It only governs all of our actions under the rule of law and it specifically charges the Congress to declare war. We must respect it. However it was ignored when the Administration used the infamous Gulf of Tonkin precedent with Congress "authorizing" the President through a resolution and not a formal Declaration of War. Were supposed to use our military forces as instruments of national power when our direct national interests are at stake. Is this the case in Iraq? We can invade, attack, bomb, and conquer in precise and superb fashion. We cannot occupy foreign lands and get bogged down into an insurgencies and civil wars for any length of time. And now its a complete mess! You cite turmoil and other devastating affects, and provide faulty dilemmas that, much like the old domino theory, hysterically cite doom and gloom at every turn. Yes, the Turks are threatening to jump into the fray and take out the Kurds. That would be a terrible miscalculation on their part and torpedo their EU aspirations and relations with us. Its in the Sunni, Shia, Iranian, and Syrian interest to keep us bogged down and sacrifice our blood and waste our money. Al Qaeda will exploit this as well. It will not be easy to change direction and strategy; however, wasting American lives and taxpayer dollars just to prop up Iraqis not willing to stand up for themselves, are not the keys to success. We have to have the courage make changes in Iraq.

wither = whether bad soell checking on my part

I also forgot to mention the likely safe haven that AQI forces would find in Sunni Iraq.

jkhoohah

What does the constitution have to do with wither we stay in Iraq? The question centers around what is best for the nation.

To blithely state that the world will keep turning if we leave is incredibly irresponsible. Sure Iraqis will survive (at least a significant percentage of them), and we will continue to fight terrorists elsewhere, but there will be very real and almost certainly very negative consequences for a premature withdrawal.

Even if you take a completely amoral/national security centric view, the turmoil that will result from an early withdrawal will without a doubt affect the nation's economic health and security. Chaotic conditions in the ME would severely disrupt the worldwide petrol market causing significant hardships here and abroad as fuel prices spike and the cost of virtually everything spikes as well.

There would also be immensely complex geopolitical disruptions in the area. In the likely civil war that would follow a premature pullout the Shias will lean on and consequently be heavily influenced by Iran. The Sunnis will be forced to do the same with the region's Arab regimes. This creates a small hot war being supported by much larger and increasingly hostile regional powers. That is a recipe for escalation. The Kurds would likely be able to control Kirkuk and the surrounding area's oil resources while managing at least initially to largely avoid the civil conflict. The Turks though are already chomping at the bit to enter northern Iraq, and Iran (who also has a problematic Kurdish population) w/ its Iraqi Shia friends may be drawn to the oil wealth of the north as well. Would or could we remain neutral in such a disruptive conflict? We probably could not and that situation would be a heck of a lot messier than the one we currently find ourselves in.

All of that completely ignores the "softer" issues. We will be, to a large degree, responsible for the ethnic cleansing (possibly genocide) that follows. That violence will make the current situation in Iraq seem placid. There is also the issue of what our abandoning Iraq will do to our credibility far into the future. We cannot predict those problems but it is reasonable to assume that we will be feeling the repercussions of diminished credibility for some time to come.

The question as the author correctly states boils down to whether AQI forces are the main accelerant or catalyze for civil conflict in Iraq or whether long standing sectarian tensions make civil war inevitable. If the civil war is not inevitable then we really ought to stay. If it is inevitable then we will have to deal with the horrible consequences that follow so we might as well withdraw and refit and save the lives and limbs of thousands of our troops, at least for the immediate future anyway.

In closing, questions about whether we should have gone or mistakes made are completely and totally irrelevant to whether or not we should now stay.

Mr. West is simply cheerleading the surge and emotionally appealing to the good patriotism of Americans.

LOL. You have a very bizarre definition of 'cheerleading'! Bing West simply explained what has happened in al Anbar, and of trying to create that effect in Baghdad with the extra troops from the surge.

from the statement:
In Anbar, our commander, Major General Walt Gaskin, believes we have turned the corner, with weekly incidents dropping from 428 in July of '06 to 98 in July of '07. In Baghdad and its outskirts, that's exactly what General Petraeus intends to do with his surge strategy - bring security to the local level and break the cycle of violence.

And according to John Byrne (NYT), who has been in Iraq before and after the surge, this strategy is working:
JB: I think theres no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. Theyre definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, thats to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to in the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, theres no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.

The President and his Administration had their opportunity and botched the initial victory with a occupation force. Among the gross errors were Central Command's planning; bad choices of leaders (Bremer, Lt Gen Sanchez); chicken hawk bureaucrats (Feith, Wolfowitz, Tenet) who never seen the fighting trench; parochialism between the Departments of State and Defense at the expense of a cohesive policy, absurd intelligence, and a disgusting waste of US taxpayer dollars. We must now let the Iraqis figure their issues out on their own. The President is putting pressure on General Petraeus in an unprecedented way. Know that a successful counterinsurgency takes a lot more time than anyone thinks...how 'bout 7-11 years! So the Administration hypes the Surge, sets up Gen Petraeus for a fait accompli good progress report in September, brings on another staffer in Lt Gen Lute, and marginalizes ADM Fallon. The insanity continues. We've run out of time. Mr. West is simply cheerleading the surge and emotionally appealing to the good patriotism of Americans. The Constitution never said "transform Arab societies". Our troops accomplished great things, and now its time to leave a dysfunctional Iraqi society. The Iraqis will survive and we'll continue to kill al Qaeda elsewhere.