During a visit to Iraq in April, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "We don't really have an exit strategy. We have a victory strategy. We are here for a mission to set the country on the path of democracy, freedom and representative government."
The successful Iraqi election last January was supposed to demonstrate that Iraq is on the correct path. Now the adoption of a constitution and the election of a post-transition government are supposed to move Iraq further on the path.
But where does the path lead afterwards? What additional milestones will be necessary to achieve victory and get the job done? Without knowing exactly where it is headed in Iraq, the United States will have a hard time reaching its desired destination.
In military parlance, what's needed is a defined "end state" for U.S. involvement in Iraq. The term end state is used to describe a clear and concise set of required conditions that, when achieved, accomplish national strategic objectives.
This end state should not be confused with the more commonly used term "exit strategy," which refers to the total withdrawal of military forces. Discussions of an exit strategy are potentially harmful because they focus attention on when U.S. forces will leave the theater of operations instead of how the United States can achieve its long-term objectives.
There are three potential end states that could lead to a successful outcome for the United States in Iraq. All fit within the prism of America's Middle East policy and within the larger philosophical context of U.S. foreign and defense policy generally.
If an end state isn't identified and pursued, the alternative could be an indefinite state of armed conflict involving massive numbers of U.S. ground forces in Iraq. This would produce a grave set of consequences for the future of the United States as the world's only superpower.
The first potential end state would be a strategic partnership between the Iraqi government and the United States. This would likely entail the ratification of a security treaty that would give formal status to a large-scale permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. This end state would be based on the realistic need for an alliance devoted to jointly fighting terrorism and promoting common regional objectives. This would loosely resemble the type of relationship the United States had with Japan and West Germany during the Cold War.
A second end state would be similar to the current situation in Afghanistan. The United States would withdraw its forces from urban centers and substantially reduce its total presence in Iraq to around 15,000 to 20,000 troops, although regional U.S. force levels would remain high. U.S. troops would be stationed in remote areas and would only conduct missions against counter-insurgency and terrorist targets. Most security operations would be conducted by Iraqi forces, although U.S. airpower and other military assets could be called in if necessary.
A third end state would be a large-scale drawdown of American forces with a declaration that the Iraqi government was capable of handling its security requirements without U.S. direct assistance. Part of this strategy would be an insistence that conflicts between ethnic factions are an internal Iraqi problem and therefore should be decided by local political authorities without outside interference.
This third end state would not result in a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, because a small number of troops might remain for training and logistical purposes, as well as U.S. embassy security. However, the bulk of U.S. forces would return home or move to other regional bases, similar to the relationship between the United States and Colombia today.
Selecting an end state for U.S. involvement in Iraq would create a goal that American policymakers and the military could work towards. Putting off the decision heightens the risk that instead of choosing an end state, the United States will have a highly undesirable one thrust upon it, either by external factors or through a continuing decline in domestic public support.
“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International
Lowell H. Schwartz is an associate international policy analyst in the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Jeff Michaels is a Ph.D. student at the War Studies Department of Kings College, University of London.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 29, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.