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Running for the Exits By: Frederick W. Kagan
The Weekly Standard | Friday, September 14, 2007

In a speech that will no doubt be hailed by the left as bold and original, Senator Barack Obama today unveiled "his" plan for a "responsible" withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2009. The plan may be bold, but it is certainly not original. In fact, Obama's plan is extremely similar to one unveiled in June by the Center for a New American Strategy called "Phased Transition: A Responsible Way Forward and Out of Iraq." Like the CNAS report, Obama's plan calls for the withdrawal of almost all American combat forces from Iraq by the time the next president takes office (oddly enough), but purports to offer ways to achieve vital American goals in Iraq without using U.S. forces in combat, including continuing the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, helping the Iraqis achieve political reconciliation, preventing the Iraq struggle from becoming a regional war, and preventing genocide within Iraq (the CNAS report called its objectives "the three nos:" no al Qaeda, no regional war, and no genocide, and also argued that its approach would enable reconciliation within Iraq). Like the CNAS plan, Obama's proposal asserts that U.S. forces can continue to train Iraqi Security Forces even after this withdrawal of combat power (as long as the ISF are non-sectarian). Like the CNAS plan, Obama's proposal is utterly unworkable. Any attempt to transfer it from the realm of thought-experiment to the real world would lead to immediate disaster in Iraq and the region.

The authors of the CNAS report, James Miller and Shawn Brimley, put a lot of serious effort into the challenge of finding some middle way to achieve America's goals in Iraq that was neither precipitous withdrawal nor the current strategy. They considered real military problems in some detail and offered a detailed proposal backed with reasoned arguments. In the end, as an equally detailed study by the American Enterprise Institute concluded, the solution Miller and Brimley came up with is simply not feasible from a military-technical standpoint, and relies on a number of baseless assumptions about how Iraqi and regional actors will respond. Any effort to implement it in the timelines suggested in the report would lead to the immediate collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces for certain, and most probably an escalation in violence, the collapse of the Iraqi government, and a failure to achieve any of America's vital national security goals in Iraq.

The CNAS team deserves credit for making a serious and respectable effort to grapple with a difficult task. Obama's proposal does not. Not only is it a strategy someone else developed and published, but it is dumbed down to the point of incoherence. On the one hand, the plan trumpets: "All combat troops redeployed by 2009." The proposal even provides a little plan for how to do that: "The withdrawal would be strategic and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Troops would be removed from secure areas first, with troops remaining longer in more volatile areas. The drawdown would begin immediately with one or two combat brigades deploying each month and all troops engaged in combat operations out by the end of the year." This sounds good (if one accepts the premise that withdrawal is desirable), but means little.

Moving something like 160,000 troops and their equipment out of Iraq between now and January 2009 would not be "strategic" or "phased." It would be a rush for the exit. Even the CNAS report proposed removing only 100,000 soldiers over a longer period, and even that effort would have been highly problematic. The notion of removing troops from safe areas first and hotspots later also sounds reasonable, but isn't. American forces move into and out of Iraq by brigade. But brigades in Iraq are not deployed all together--they normally have battalions and even companies in various, sometimes widely dispersed, areas. In the real world, withdrawing a brigade requires moving its subordinate units back to bases, reassembling them into the brigade, and then moving it out of the country--along the single road that serves as our principal line of supply from Kuwait. The process of moving one-to-two brigades per month would not permit such an orderly and carefully calibrated withdrawal as Obama pictures. It would be simple cut-and-run, about as fast a withdrawal as it would be possible for the U.S. to undertake.

The weird thing about Obama's plan is that the section following "All Combat Troops Redeployed by 2009" is headed "Residual Force to Remain." This "residual force" would "protect American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq, and continue striking at al Qaeda in Iraq. If Iraq makes political progress and their security forces are not sectarian, we would also continue training the Iraqi Security Forces.

In the event of an outbreak of genocide, we would reserve the right to intervene, with the international community, if that intervention was needed to provide civilians with a safe-haven." The CNAS report was clear and explicit about this point. It argued that something like 60,000 American soldiers, including three combat brigades, would be required to achieve these goals (Jim Miller explained subsequently that the 60,000 troops was not intended as a firm number, but that the range would probably be between 40,000 and 80,000). It described in considerable detail what those forces would do and what kind of troops would be required. Even so, the AEI evaluation of the CNAS plan concluded that 60,000 or even 80,000 troops could not possibly perform all the missions the CNAS authors wanted to give them. But at least there was thought and logic in the CNAS proposal.

Obama's proposal, on the other hand, can charitably be called disingenuous. How are the American people expected to parse "All Combat Troops Redeployed by 2009" but "Residual Force to Remain"? Sounds like American forces won't be in combat and won't be in danger, right? The CNAS team was straightforward and honest about this. They recognized that American troops would continue to fight and continue to be in danger, and they argued that American interests in Iraq were sufficiently important to continue to accept that price. The whole stated purpose of the CNAS exercise, in fact, was to find a way to head-off an irresponsible precipitous withdrawal that the authors feared would result if President Bush continued to fight for his current strategy. They appear to have been wrong in that assumption, but the aim of their effort was to find a way to ensure that American national security interests in Iraq would be protected. It is less clear that that is the aim of the Obama proposal, and it is far less clear from the proposal itself just exactly what the American people and the American military would be in for were it adopted.

It is too much to expect Senators to develop concrete and detailed war plans on their own--with very few exceptions they have neither the staffs nor the expertise to do so. That is one of the reasons why the United States has traditionally left the developing of war plans to its generals. But when a senator puts out his "own" plan that is virtually identical to one that has already been carefully evaluated and shown to have been unworkable, it seems only right that the American people should be aware of the fact.

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).

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