June 21, 2006

Iraq: No date for the insurgents

This article also appears on MSNBC's Hardball HARDBLOG.

Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold sponsored an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have required the “redeployment” – read pullout - of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by July 2007, in other words, a date certain for the removal of American forces. It also called for an “over-the-horizon military presence to prosecute the war on terror and protect regional security interests.” The amendment was defeated 86-13. Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed offered an alternative amendment that would have urged President Bush to begin a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq with in a year. That amendment failed by a vote of 60-39.

What messages would these amendments have sent to the various groups that comprise the insurgency in Iraq?

Of the two proposals, the Kerry-Feingold amendment would have sent a much clearer message to the insurgents – a message devastating for U.S. policy in Iraq and the region.

The tactical message would have been that their methods are working. Indiscriminate killing of Iraqis, escalating sectarian violence, continued use of suicide bombers and roadside bombs, the recent seizure and brutal murder of two American soldiers, etc. all have weakened American resolve to the point where the Congress was not only calling for withdrawal, but actually set a date when it must be completed. The timing of this debate in the wake of the brutal murder of two US troops is unfortunate and only reinforces the perception that these tactics are having an effect.

The strategic message would have been that if the insurgents are able to survive another year, Iraq is theirs. If this amendment had passed, there would likely be an immediate drop in the level of violence – false encouragement for the Americans to stick to the timetable. The insurgents would merely wait, plan and consolidate their power for July 2007 to re-engage the fledgling Iraqi government and its untested security forces.

A date-certain timetable for withdrawal of forces is in essence doing one thing you do not do in fighting an insurgency – cede territory to the insurgents. This proposal would have done exactly that – after July 2007, Iraq is yours. Maintaining an "over-the-horizon presence" says to the insurgents that we’re going where they aren’t – again ceding territory. What happens when the insurgents show up there as well? Will we “redeploy” somewhere else?

Additionally, this amendment would have had the unintended consequence of forcing the military command in Iraq to expend its resources preparing to withdraw troops and materiel rather than focusing on combating the insurgency and completing the training of Iraqi security forces.

There should be debate over the prosecution of the war, but setting a timetable would have sent the wrong message. It could have been a recipe for failure.