The Right Way to Withdraw


Oct 14, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on October 14, 2007.

We're involved too deeply in Iraq and Afghanistan to exit suddenly without fixing our mess.

Iraq is like a variable-rate mortgage with balloon payments and a stiff withdrawal penalty — much cheaper to get into than out of.

Had we not invaded Iraq, there are any number of better things we could do to fight terror with the billions the administration plans to spend in Iraq this year. But the issue before us today is not whether to initiate the conflict but how to terminate it.

Having toppled Saddam Hussein and dismantled his government, the United States has assumed weighty responsibilities for about 28 million people whom we cannot in good conscience shirk. At least 4 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes. Two million of them have already fled the country, and the numbers continue to rise. For their hosts, these uprooted populations represent ticking time bombs, further burdening weak states and polarizing already divided societies. If the Iraqi refugees cannot go home — which would require a peaceful, negotiated settlement among the Iraqi factions — then the United States will have a moral obligation to support them. They will be a burden on the U.S. taxpayer, as on the rest of the international community, for decades to come.

Even if President Bush were persuaded to accelerate troop withdrawals, as a practical matter, this would not save much money in the near term; moving troops home is a costly process.

Nevertheless, more money should be allocated to helping Pakistan extend effective governance into the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan because that's the best way to end the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and to flush Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda high command out of hiding.

James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of State, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.

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