Iraq: Is It Time to Leave?

James Fallows, Robert Kaplan, and Nir Rosen weigh in

The debate over how to proceed in Iraq is heating up. The Republican rout in last week's election signaled widespread voter dissatisfaction with the our current level of involvement. But should we disengage from Iraq abruptly? Would a more gradual stepping down of troops ease the transition? Or is pulling back something we should even be considering at all at this point? In recent months, several Atlantic contributors have weighed in on such questions.

In his December 2005 cover story, "Why Iraq Has No Army," James Fallows homed right in the crux of the problem:

The crucial need to improve security and order in Iraq puts the United States in an impossible position. It can't honorably leave Iraq—as opposed to simply evacuating Saigon-style—so long as its military must provide most of the manpower, weaponry, intelligence systems, and strategies being used against the insurgency. But it can't sensibly stay when the very presence of its troops is a worsening irritant to the Iraqi public and a rallying point for nationalist opponents—to say nothing of the growing pressure in the United States for withdrawal.

Better planning and more forceful, decisive action early on, Fallows suggested, could have prevented this impasse. Mistakes ranged from the disbanding of Iraq's Army to a failure to deploy enough U.S. troops, and a lack of Arabic language training among those who were deployed. The result was a spiraling insurgency and a weak, undisciplined Iraqi security force to whom the welfare of Iraq can hardly be entrusted. Given this mess, can the U.S. ever extricate itself without precipitating disaster?

Fallows contended that if the U.S. is to get out of Iraq in a fashion that can be construed as anything other than a failure, it must prepare to remain there for quite some time—training Iraqis, enforcing rudimentary order, and suppressing the insurgency.

What is needed for an honorable departure is, at a minimum, a country that will not go to war with itself, and citizens who will not turn to large-scale murder. This requires Iraqi security forces that are working on a couple of levels: a national army strong enough to deter militias from any region and loyal enough to the new Iraq to resist becoming the tool of any faction; policemen who are sufficiently competent, brave, and honest to keep civilians safe. If the United States leaves Iraq knowing that non-American forces are sufficient to keep order, it can leave with a clear conscience—no matter what might happen a year or two later.

In the end the United States may not be able to leave honorably. The pressure to get out could become too great. But if we were serious about reconstituting an Iraqi military as quickly as possible ... the United States can best train Iraqis, and therefore best help itself leave Iraq, only by making certain very long-term commitments to stay.

In that same issue, in "If America Left Iraq," Nir Rosen, a journalist who had spent sixteen months reporting from Iraq after the invasion, made a rather different argument, suggesting that the U.S. would do better to pull out of Iraq sooner rather than later. He contended that the idea that U.S. forces are the only thing preventing Iraq from spiraling into total chaos is a fallacy. In fact, he argued, the opposite is the case:

Civil war is already under way—in large part because of the American presence. The longer the United States stays, the more it fuels Sunni hostility toward Shiite "collaborators." Were America not in Iraq, Sunni leaders could negotiate and participate without fear that they themselves would be branded traitors and collaborators by their constituents.

It is the U.S. occupiers and interlopers, he argued, who are fueling the ire of the insurgency. "If the occupation were to end," he explained, "so, too, would the insurgency." As for the vision of a secular Iraqi democracy, formulated with U.S. assistance, "Give it up," he wrote. "It's not going to happen."

More recently, in "We Can't Just Withdraw," an October 2006 online dispatch, Robert Kaplan argued against precipitous withdrawal. Given the country's instability, he warned, a stepping down of troops could touch off chaos—and quite possibly genocide. Even simply laying out plans for a future disengagement, he predicted, could lead to trouble: "any timetable for withdrawal," he wrote, "will lead to a meltdown of the Iraq Army according to region and sect."

He proposed putting the onus on Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, to keep order in the event that the U.S. leaves. The consequences of doing otherwise, he warned, could be felt for years to come.

What we should all fear is a political situation in Washington where a new Congress forces President George W. Bush to redeploy, and Bush, doing so under duress, makes only the most half-hearted of gestures to engage Iraq's neighbors in the process. That could lead to hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq, rather than the tens of thousands we have seen. An Iran that continues to enrich uranium is less of a threat to us than genocide in Iraq. A belligerent, nuclear Iran is something we will, as a last resort, be able to defend against militarily. And it probably won't come to that. But if we disengage from Iraq without publicly involving its neighbors, Sunni Arabs—who will bear the brunt of the mass murder—will hate us for years to come from Morocco to Pakistan. Our single greatest priority at the moment is preventing Iraq from sliding off the abyss.