The United States Is Backing Out of Iraq

By Bevin Alexander

December 10, 2005

Special to Defense and the National Interest

It’s becoming clear that the United States is in the process of withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

Iraq’s national security adviser Muwafak al-Rubaie said recently that more than 50,000 of the normal-level 138,000 Americans troops can leave in 2006. And the Pentagon is talking about pulling out three (of 18) brigades with about 15,000 troops around the first of the year.

These reports signal the growing realization in the Bush administration that American forces are playing little role in stopping the insurgency, which is now increasingly targeting Iraqi civilians and police, not U.S. troops.

The administration is beginning to see that the role of the U.S. military is different from what it was at the outset. Today that role is, on the one hand, to assist the Iraqi government in preventing takeover of Iraq by terrorists under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or by Sunni insurrectionists. On the other hand it is to foil the breakup of Iraq into two oil-rich regions—the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south—with the minority Sunnis in the middle left with no viable state and no oil.

Since American forces are not stopping the insurgency by their presence in Iraq, the real tasks of the Americans can be carried out with far fewer losses in lives by withdrawing U.S. troops and concentrating air power and Special Ops and other fast-reaction ground forces in Kuwait and a couple of the Persian Gulf states. From there they can move on 24-hour notice to assist Iraqi government forces any time they are subjected to powerful attacks. Such an arrangement would eliminate the casualties the insurgents are able to inflict on Americans inside Iraq today with roadside bombs and rocket and mortar strikes. This in turn would undermine the antiwar movement inside the United States.

American troops cannot end the insurgency. We are too visible and too much targets ourselves. Our knowledge of Iraqi society will always be imperfect as compared to that of natives, and we will always be at a disadvantage and always an easy mark while trying to patrol beats in the fashion of American precinct cops.

Our main activity at present—in addition to training Iraqi forces—is rooting out known insurgent and terrorist strongholds or hiding places and interdicting supply lines from Syria. This task will continue on into 2006, but it’s unrealistic to think that it can continue for long. Iraqi forces must take over the task. We cannot shore up indefinitely an Iraqi government that cannot protect its own territory.

Although it will take many months before Iraqi military and police forces become well-enough trained to quell the insurgency alone, the insurgents will never succeed in taking over Iraq. Their actions are so savage that they are alienating the overwhelming majority of Iraqis.

Accordingly, President Bush is correct in emphasizing that the way to end the insurgency and bring peace is the creation of effective Iraqi military and police forces. These forces will ultimately develop enough expertise and discipline to root out the fundamentalists and the insurgents and they will ultimately end the reign of terror. But it’s going to take time. And like many such insurgencies in the past, it’s not going to end with a bang, but a whimper.

Partisan or guerrilla warfare depends primarily upon the support of a significant portion of the native population. This support was described graphically in the early 1930s by the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, who said that guerrillas survive because they can swim—or can hide—in the “water” of the people. This “water” is rapidly evaporating in Iraq today. Supporters of the insurgents will finally be reduced to a tiny, radical, and more easily identified minority. When this happens, two other requirements of partisan warfare, the anonymity of most insurgents, and the existence of secret lairs where they can hide and keep their stores, will be much easier to uncover.

In other words, the final throttling of the insurgency in Iraq must be accomplished, not by American troops, but by native soldiers and native police using their superior knowledge of their own society. It will be messy, with little credit anywhere and little assurance of long-term stability.

Even so, we have learned our lesson about invading rogue states and attempting to turn them into gems of democracy. We know from Iraq and Afghanistan that it doesn’t work. Outsiders don’t solve problems, they create problems. We will most probably not topple another state in the Middle East. We’ll try to get our way by means of air power and occasional Special Ops strikes. If our European allies and the UN fail to deter Iran in its attempt to build an A-bomb, we will have to take out Iran’s nuclear installations by aerial strikes, not by invasion.

This leaves one final danger in Iraq: the threat that the Shiite majority will create an Iranian-style theocracy in the south that will lead to the breakup of Iraq, and more chaos. This danger is not likely to come to pass.

The Kurds might be drawn to the idea of allowing the Shiites to take over the oilfields of the south in return for their seizing the oilfields of the north. However, they would run up against violent opposition from the Sunnis and the United States. The Kurds know their existence as a virtually independent state depends upon the support of the United States. The Sunni Iraqis and the governments of neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran—with large Kurdish minorities of their own—would like nothing better than withdrawal of American support to give them the opportunity to shatter the emerging Kurdish state.

Likewise, the Shiites are savvy enough to realize that the Sunni insurgency is to a substantial degree fueled by fear that the Shiites and the Kurds are plotting to divide the oilfields between them, leaving them out in the cold. Thus the Shiite majority that is going to dominate the permanent Iraqi government elected on December 15, 2005, is likely to grant concessions to the Sunnis to end the insurgency. That means the Shiite clerics will have to abandon hopes of setting up a totalitarian theocracy—at least until some time in the future when the Americans have disappeared over the horizon.

© 2005 Bevin Alexander

Bevin Alexander is a military historian and author of nine books on military history. His most recent book, How America Got It Right, was published in summer 2005 by Crown Forum, New York. You may purchase this book and access his material by clicking onto his website,


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