Skip to content

Iraq: Is the US giving up?

Numerous opinion polls indicate that more and more Americans are critical of the US government's job in Iraq, consider the war a mistake and demand a withdrawal of the troops.
14,641 members of the US military have been wounded and 1,911 have been killed. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in April 2004, has galvanized the anti-war movement. More than 100,000 Americans demonstrated against the war in Washington DC on Saturday, while more than 200 demonstrated in favor of the war on the same day and about 400 people the day after. Some of the anti-war posters read:
Make levees, not war; Yeeha is not a foreign policy; Blind faith in bad leadership is not patriotism; Osama bin Forgotten; Cindy speaks for me; Bush busy creating business for morticians worldwide; Liar, born liar, born-again liar; Pro whose life?; War is terrorism with a bigger budget.

The protests, polls and fatalities are not the reasons, why Juan Cole calls for pulling out the ground troops now. The professor of history at the Univ of Michigan and Fulbright Alumnus describes numerous mistakes and disastrous developments in Iraq and concludes that the ground troops are not accomplishing their mission, but they are:

making things worse, not better. Let's get them out, now, before they destroy any more cities, create any more hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, provoke any more ethnic hatreds by installing Shiite police in Fallujah or Kurdish troops in Turkmen Tal Afar. They are sowing a vast whirlwind, a desert sandstorm of Martian proportions, which future generations of Americans and Iraqis will reap. The ground troops must come out. Now. For the good of Iraq. For the good of America.

The US generals in Iraq are more upbeat about their accomplishments, but worry about the eroding political support for their mission and plan a slow exit, writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post:

The commanders who are running the war don't talk about transforming Iraq into an American-style democracy or of imposing U.S. values. They understand that Iraqis dislike American occupation, and for that reason they want fewer American troops in Iraq, not more. Most of all, they don't want the current struggle against Iraqi insurgents, who are nasty but militarily insignificant, to undermine U.S. efforts against the larger threat posed by al Qaeda terrorists, who would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans if they could. (...)

What Abizaid and his commanders seem to fear most is that eroding political support for the war in the United States will undermine their strategy for a gradual transition to Iraqi control. They think that strategy is beginning to pay off, but it will require several more years of hard work to stabilize the country. The generals devoutly want the American people to stay the course -- but the course they describe is more limited, and more realistic, than recent political debate might suggest.

While Prof Cole wants the US ground troops out now he later clarified that the US "has a duty to manage the withdrawal so as not to provoke a massive civil war. I suspect that can be done with a combination of continued training and arming of the new Iraqi army and air power." Others are skeptical whether US air power and the Iraqi army can prevent a civil war.

Iraq has already replaced Afghanistan as Al Qaeda's training ground, confirms an expert panel created by the UN Security Council and led by British counterterrorism specialist Richard Barrett.
Reuters quotes from their report:

Recruits travel there [to Iraq] from many parts of the world and acquire skills in urban warfare, bomb-making, assassination and suicide attacks. (...) When these fighters return to their countries of origin or residence and join those at home who are well integrated locally, the combination is likely to increase the threat of successful terrorist attacks considerably. (...) The threat from al Qaeda remains as pernicious and widespread as at any time since the attacks of 11 September 2001.

It is obviously in Europe's vital interest that the US led coalition succeeds in establishing stability and democracy in Iraq and does not allow Iraq to be the training base for the next 9/11 terrorists. Germany's Foreign Minister Fischer acknowledged at the Munich Security Conference in 2004, (exactly one year after his sharp disagreements with Rumsfeld about going to war with Iraq) that a US failure in Iraq would have severe negative consequences for the opponents of the war as well.

The Atlantic Review reported about more positive assessments of the developments in Iraq
here and here.
We also wrote about the Bush administration
lowering expectations regarding democracy in Iraq, women rights and defeating the insurgency.


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

Martin on :

I think the US is leaving Iraq soon, because President Bush told Americans to conserve gasoline by driving less. He also issued a directive for all federal agencies to cut their own energy use and to encourage employees to use public transportation. OK, he said that due to Katrina and Rita, but it could be a sign of the times to come... After all in 2000 he or Ari Fleischer said that conserving gas is not the American way of life.

Sandra on :

Don't exaggerate the antiwar rally! Many protestors are just the usual leftwing nutcases nobody takes serious. And TV did not report about the protests anyway. From email: "If you relied on television for your news, you'd hardly know the protests happened at all. According to the Nexis news database, the only mention on the network newscasts that Saturday came on the NBC Nightly News, where the massive march received all of 87 words. (ABC World News Tonight transcripts were not available for September 24, possibly due to pre-emption by college football.) Cable coverage wasn't much better. CNN, for example, made only passing references to the weekend protests."

Chris on :

After a complete US withdrawal, Iraq would be at the will of any power in the region that can control the air-space and enough of a foothold in the territory. Because of this, American aircraft and SOF teams will remain, even with a substantial US withdrawal, or else we will cede Iraq to Iran (at least a good part of it) and possibly provoke action by Turkey and Israel. The danger is not just a civil war -- which has already begun in a low grade -- but a world war over resources and between Shiite, Sunni, Israel, Kurdish, Turks and branching out to involve China, Russia, Europe and America. The level of involvement may range from covert ops to full blown tank formations, but it is a possibility. The only way to prevent such a global conflict is to maintain a long standing United States military presence at severla strategic positions throughout the country -- and to buy/influence a complacent and cooperative Iraqi government that permits such a force. The force would need to be about 20,000 - 50,000 ground troops with substantial air power to reinforce offensives. It is, interestingly enough, the exact sort of fast moving, light force that Rumsfeld has imagined in "Transformation." Further, it could shift to other regions rapidly, augmented by United States Marines, aircraft and airborne personnel still based in the States. In a phrase, it would keep a strong sword in the region for many years. I just kinda' thought this one out. I will write more this weekend.

Martin on :

This fast moving, light force might be able kill, but unfortunately won't be able to provide any kind of order and stability and will not be able to eradicate terrorist networks in Iraq. Iraq will be save haven for international terrorists. The US homeland would be increasingly threatened.

Chris on :

I agree with you completely.

Shawn on :

Aren't you completely ignoring the developing Iraqi forces? Also, we still have over 50,000 troops in Japan and approximately 37,000 troops in South Korea. The key for Iraq will not be in how we exit but in how we stand victorius. Curiously, those demanding an 'exit strategy' for Iraq have yet to complain about the absence of one for Japan and South Korea. The truth is we don't need an exit strategy for Iraq--we need a viable victory strategy, which has been outlined several times in the past. It is the victory strategy with which, I believe, people can honestly disagree and debate.

Wolf on :

Shawn, thanks your insightful comment. Re the Iraqi forces there are bad news according to the Associated Press: "The number of Iraqi battalions capable of combat without U.S. support has dropped from three to one, the top American commander in Iraq told Congress Thursday, prompting Republicans to question whether U.S. troops will be able to withdraw next year."

Chris on :

I believe there are plans to draw down the force levels in both countries.One unfortunate thing about asking for a "victory" strategy is that the administration will insist it is operating with one already, which is at best debatable. The generals and the Iraqi government both want a US draw down, and one may be inevitable based on the limits of our armed forces. A great deal will rest upon the Iraqis, but the US can keep overt involvement from other nations at a minimum. It is a bloody mess, to say the least.

Shawn on :

Thanks for your comments, Chris. Yes, the force deployments in Japan and South Korea have been under review in terms of numbers and base positioning. My point was not that these troop positions aren't targets for a draw-down, but rather should be reflected upon when talking about 'exit strategies'. I'm actually now thinking of doing a special post on the forces in Japan and South Korea, and what the predominant thinking is in approach to the region. It would be interesting for The Atlantic Review to touch upon the forces and bases in Germany and clear up for many of us just to what level Germany is and isn't working with the U.S. My feeling is that it is doing more than most of us hear... I definitely believe a draw down in Iraq is inevitable, and I also believe that the military will by now have drawn up several scenarios from which to pull as events develop (at least, that's my hope). I doubt highly this would be a 'down-to-zero' draw down when considering the entire War on Terror strategy--it just doesn't make sense. However, I also think that doesn't mean the Iraqis will not at some point demand zero presence. As for your bloody mess comment, I could report on every murder, rape and kidnapping in a city such as Chicago or New Orleans and someone unfamiliar with the city would be scared shitless to go there. However, would that kind of reporting justify calling Chicago a bloody mess, nonetheless the entire state of Illinois? A rhetorical question, but I believe my point can be understood. Yes, Baghdad and the Euphrates Valley are currently the primary focus of violence and intimidation and they are being dealt with in a systematic and lop-sided nature by our forces as the spearhead. Specific events could be labeled a bloody mess and still be an understatement. But to lable the entire Iraqi condition 'at the best, a bloody mess' is void of meaning.

Chris on :

Thanks, I think that would make for an excellent post on your blog and I am going to bookmark your blog now. But, I stand by the "bloody mess" opinion, even if it is shallow and lacking a great deal of depth/meaning. We have Sunnis completely abandoned in the political process (or nearly so, please see: Tha Badrists and Sadrists have had violent clashes. The Kurds seem to want a state against the wishes of Turkey and Iran. The Iranians wield too much influence in the South of Iraq. To bend your analogy, it would be appropriate to add that your comparative Chicago had Canada and some paramilitary Michigan group at work in the town. Thanks again for your comments.

Shawn on :

Yeah, I would say my Chicago analogy was a little oversimplified. The difficult thing about making comparisons with Iraq is that it is an unprecedented undertaking. Specific examples from history never fit completely and so in the end, we are all speculators shooting from the hip. I understand better now that your bloody mess comment was not limited to physical violence in Iraq, but also the various political complications and power influences. I guess in the end, like with the USA, there is no guarantee that a constitution, etc. will put away possibilities for things like civil war. We just have to believe that the best of people in the world will overcome the worst and move forward supporting the former.

Chris on :

Great comment about the Civil War and the constitution. I also enjoyed this comment: [quote]"The difficult thing about making comparisons with Iraq is that it is an unprecedented undertaking. Specific examples from history never fit completely and so in the end, we are all speculators shooting from the hip."[quote] I agree that this is an unique moment in history and comparing it to Vietnam or WW2 is silly and not helpful. But we need candid and deep debate to figure out a decent strategy with the potential of success. As for my "bloody" comment, I was playing with the word as it is in America with the word as it is in England.

Shawn on :

Thank you for the link Wolf. I do believe that there are definately some fluctuations in the capability of Iraqi forces that should be of concern. But I think these fluctuations are natural with conflict, and in a long-term view, as long as they aren't full force degrading, should be seen as not problematic at the strategic level. The article you linked, unfortunately, didn't quote fully the upgrade in Iraqi force assessment standards that makes it appear the force is less effective when in reality the higher standards automatically reduce the operating level of most Iraqi battalions. "Quizzed by reporters about the readiness status of Iraqi forces, Casey said he's confident that they're progressing on track. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged reporters not to get caught up in evaluating that readiness based on numerical status levels that fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including measuring procedures. For example, initial readiness standards two years ago measured numbers of Iraqi troops. Later, those standards were based on the number of trained troops. Later yet, those standards were based on troops who were trained and equipped. As the bar continued to rise, the numbers dipped a bit, giving an impression that readiness was declining, the secretary explained. "Well, the numbers have moved around, and it looks like we're getting worse," Rumsfeld said. "We're not getting worse, we're getting better. Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced." So, like with any organization, if you raise the standards for performance, the appearance of current performance will seem to have dropped significantly in the short-term until you begin to bring the entire organization up to the new level. Personally, I doubt this could be the entire reason for a reduction in readiness assessment of the Iraqi forces, but I wouldn't go so far as to say this is "bad news." Rather, it is simply reality for a conflict situation and part of a rebuilding process that continues to move forward. Here is the link that provides the above quote: Also, you can find the full, unedited press conference in video here:,&ArchiveDays=100 Although the first link above is obviously military news and biased, I would argue the AP account is as well. Combined with the actual, unedited video, we can put both accounts of the press conference in context. Enjoy your site, Shawn

Wolf on :

Shawn, thank you for the additional information and the links. The Atlantic Review is intended to provide informed analysis and comments on important issues from different perspectives. You contributed considerably to this effort. Thanks also for adding perspective by referring to the US troops in South Korea and Japan in your first comment. Re the readiness of the Iraqi army: You wrote that my link "didn't quote fully the upgrade in Iraqi force assessment standards that makes it appear the force is less effective when in reality the higher standards automatically reduce the operating level of most Iraqi battalions." [quote="My AP article stated"] In June, the Pentagon told lawmakers that three Iraqi battalions were fully trained, equipped and capable of operating independently. On Thursday, Casey said only one battalion is ready.[/quote] Your link mentioned two rather old upgrades of the overall optimisictic force assessment standards. The question, however, is: Did the Pentagon upgrade their force assessment standards SINCE JUNE 2005? Rumsfeld did not say that the September standards are any dfferent from the June standards. How can you change the definition of "operating independently" anyway? Either you are independent or you are not. I agree with you that this reduction of Level 1 battalians from three to one, might not be very significant news, but Republicans and Democrats in Congress are very concerned that the training of the Iraqis does not progress as fast as the Pentagon had hoped, as the Wash Post reports here: [url][/url] The good news is according to : [quote="Wash Post"]Military figures show that there are about three dozen army and special police battalions rated at Level 2 or above, meaning they are taking the lead in combat as long as they have support from coalition forces[/quote] So, perhaps the US can reduce troop levels and support the Iraqi battalians with a light and fast moving force as Chris described in another comment above. But: [quote="Wash Post"] Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he believes the United States has not had enough troops to fend off insurgents permanently. McCain also chastised Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who retires as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff today, for being overly optimistic because "things have not gone as we had planned or expected nor as we were told by you, General Myers."[/quote] Shawn, how does your "viable victory strategy" look like? More US troops to implement the oil spot strategy more forcefully?

Chris on :

Defense has not released the reason why a battalion has been downgraded. Desertion has been a huge issue for the Iraqi army -- and is a strategic goal of the insurgency, so a degraded battalion, because of desertion, bodes some ill for the prospects of the Iraqi army. Disbanding the Iraqi Army en masse was a huge mistake, and a mistake that other occupying powers did not make in history. There is some good news with smaller tribes trained and equipped for select guard roles, which Chalabi has done to secure a pipeline.

Shawn on :

Thanks Wolf for the additional quotes and clarifications. I agree that a government organization like the Pentagon is unlikely to change standards that quickly, more like on a bi-annual basis (every 6 months). So the downgrade is more likely a "moving assessment" similar to a "moving average" where some new data has forced such downward reassessment. But I continue to believe this is more tactically significant versus strategically significant in that the strategy of getting the Iraqi troops up to speed remains the same, but perhaps the tactics necessary to do so need to be adjusted--which I have read occurs on a regular basis. This interview of Donald Rumsfeld by Thomas Barnett provides some great insight into the leadership approach to tactical decision-making on the ground in Iraq: Although the military leadership continues to stress that they feel more troops is not the answer, I am not privy to their threat assessments and what they base these conclusions on. In addition, I have no idea what material McCain is referring to in making his statements--I believe he is privy to top secret committee reports. Either way, I believe he believes what he says. However, show me any project that has gone exactly as planned, and I will show you a liar. I don't believe personally more troops are needed. I think logistically many people just do not know the incredible amount of preparation and support that is needed just to add a few thousand troops. I think more important is using the troops we already have there in the right way. It's like assembling a project team in business--do I want a lot of people on a team, or a smaller number who are more effective? Without being privy to the type of threat assessments currently being faced, my personal opinion from reading excellent military analysis sites like this one: is that the type of threat requires less of a WWII overwhelming numbers type force and more of a pinpoint precision strike force of smaller number but greater effectiveness. The thing to remember is that a majority of our troops in Iraq aren't in offensive operations. Many run patrols that see little if any action--others the opposite of course. See Michael Yon's reporting from Mosul over the past few months: Many soldiers are working on projects like this one: Now, I would love to see more soldiers in Iraq on projects like these, in addition to projects focused on Iraqi training, especially if it is deemed too dangerous for the civilian population. But as far as offensive operations go, I think we have enough troops. I think the viable victory strategy is in place. Given that the current coalition of troops has only been in Iraq for 2.5 years, the degree of change that is positive is immense when put in context. Yes, the terrorists and former Saddamm-loyalists have created more havoc than expected in the subsequent power vacuum, but given this challenge, it is difficult to say that the coalition of troops with the USA in the lead has not adapted remarkeably well under historic standards, and in a country and region many have never been before. Talk about a study abroad experience! I've read about the oil spot strategy you mention. To be honest about my ignorance, I haven't studied this thoroughly, only through the greater knowledge of others: As in the above post, I believe oil spot will be used where needed, and set aside when needed. I think looking for the "holy grail" of tactics for all of Iraq is not possible. And I think the leadership approach Rumsfeld describes in reference to on the ground tactical decision making is effective in allowing such adaptability. (This mention in the interview with Rumsfeld is near the end). As a disclaimer, I'm not in any way a military expert, so what I say can be taken with a grain of salt. My areas of interest and growing expertise relate to the Northeast Asia region, and how it influences or engages in regional and international issues. In fact, I will be doing a post soon on my blog (which I just started) about the coalition troops from Japan and South Korea in Iraq.

Shawn on :

I just found a great post in the link below covering a speech by General Patraeus at Princeton: It clearly clarifies the downgrade of the 2 battalions as a matter of "personnel changes" which kind of supports my idea of "moving assessment" that captures such changes and adjusts status levels accordingly. The post also has lots of other great info on status level metrics!

Chris on :

Wow, interesting.

fm on :

I believe the GOP and WH are looking for a way to declare victory and at least stop the dying of the american soldiers before the next election fight goes into high gear next September. We may still have have a large number of troops in several dozen bases in Iraq, but I am sure they will put a positive spin on that and the way the general american public is swallowing lies, will be accepted as truth. I personally have my doubt if the Iraqis will play along with that plan, but they still have plenty of tame puppets in the present government dancing to the american tune. One thing is clear that the present policies have provided the terrorists a training ground that they never could have dreamed of. I am sure that the number of foreign fighters that are getting their training under these realistic conditions, are a small number, but these that survive will be the leaders of tomorrow and that does not bode well for the future. In any case Iraq, I believe has been truley broken and from what I have learned from various sources and conversation with people that know the area, will never again be whole again barring a miracle, and those are probably all used up. And with this new play to destroy the present government of Syria, the whole area can erupt in chaos, and what that will set in motion scares me. What some have perhaps also have forgotten, that if the Kurds decide to declare themselves an independent nation, the Turks will surely march into Iraq adding another destabilizing factor.

Jorg on :

Shawn, you said the downgrade of the 2 battalions was a matter of "personnel changes." Six months have passed and there was another downgrade rather than an upgrade. However ther are some good news as well: Los Angeles Times: "The number of Iraqi army battalions judged capable of fighting the insurgency without U.S. help has slipped from one to zero since September, Pentagon officials said Friday. But the number of Iraqi battalions capable of leading the battle, with U.S. troops in a support role, has grown by nearly 50%, from 36 to 53, Air Force Lt. Gen. Gene Renuart said, and the number engaged in combat has increased 11%, from 88 to 98." [url],0,2476879.story?coll=la-home-headlines[/url]

Chris on :

The latest report (.pdf) states that more Irai formations are at level 2 (capable of taking the lead without focused coalition involvement). The most important question remains unanswered. How long should we expect this to take (pg. 36 of the report): At the top level, level one, the unit is fully independent and requires no Coalition assistance. Considering the need for further development of Iraqi logistical elements, ministry capacity and capability, intelligence structures, and command and control, it will take some time before a substantial number of units are assessed as fully independent and requiring no assistance.

Add Comment

E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.

Form options