The debate over the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is heavy on accusations of deceit and cowardice and light on analysis. The American public needs an objective answer to the question: "How will withdrawing troops affect U.S. security interests?"
The Bush administration has argued that prevailing in Iraq is imperative — whatever the cost, however long it takes — in order to defeat a global jihad.
Although jihadists were not active in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, they are now. They have augmented the local Baathist-Sunni insurgency with two highly effective weapons: the suicide bomb and religious rage. The former is used to provoke Iraq's Shiites into sectarian war, the latter to recruit more suicide bombers.
While foreign terrorists in Iraq are few in number, they are the main reason the local insurgency has not been, and cannot be, defeated militarily. They are drawn to Iraq by the chance to bleed the United States and by the opportunity to increase their own ranks. They may also see Iraq, or at least Sunni Iraq, as the nucleus of a new caliphate of Islamist purity and militancy, though this is less clear.
There is little chance that U.S. forces can stop suicide bombings, rid Iraq of jihadists, separate Sunni and Shiite populations and fighters, disarm militias and prevent civil war.
This is not to say that U.S. forces make matters worse, but their departure would not necessarily mean any improvement. Iraq will probably be violent and polarized with or without our soldiers.
The strategic question, then, is how the U.S. presence in Iraq affects the struggle with the global jihad beyond Iraq's borders. On this, the analysis is mixed.
On the one hand, the American occupation of Iraq, marred by accusations of torture, has brought Muslim hatred of the United States to a boil everywhere. The war in Iraq is diverting vast resources and America's leaders' attention from combating the global jihad outside of Iraq, from strengthening homeland security, and from repairing and transforming the U.S. military. It is bolstering the jihadist population, which is very mobile. And, at this critical juncture in the struggle with jihad, it is polarizing and paralyzing the U.S. government.
Weighed against this heavy cost of keeping American forces in Iraq are two risks of leaving. The first is that pulling out of Iraq would open the door to the creation of a new Sunni caliphate. But it is far from clear that the jihadists really want — much less would be able to manage and defend — a territorial entity.
The second risk is that withdrawal could signal a lack of U.S. resolve to friends and foes, including the global jihadists themselves. Perhaps. But rather than being viewed as a retreat, a shift of U.S. might and focus from a costly occupation that is not working to the larger task of countering the global jihad could be seen as a strategic maneuver. Let's not forget that withdrawing from Vietnam enabled the United States to return to the job of winning the Cold War.
If, on balance, the United States determines that such a strategic shift is warranted, the theory and timing for removing American forces from Iraq can be quite simple. Rather than saying American troops will stay until Iraq is secure, the Bush administration could tie their stay only to the capability of Iraqi security forces, which could be quite robust by the end of 2006.
But let's be honest with ourselves: The building of large and able Iraqi security forces will not necessarily make Iraq peaceful, unified or free from jihadist infiltration and Iranian influence. It is unlikely to stop suicide bombings, Shiite radicalization, Sunni resistance to Shiite domination or Iraq's tendency to fragment. But it would permit the United States to improve its strategic position in the long struggle that matters more.
David Gompert is a senior fellow at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization. He served as senior adviser for national security and defense for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Post on December 11, 2005.