“What is worse than soldiers dying in vain is even more soldiers dying in vain.”

The continued conflict in the Gulf War, and the massive reconstruction necessary on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, require a reevaluation of American policy in Iraq. Much of the partisan, emotional rhetoric in the current public debate does little to focus on the problem.

As patriotic Americans who have dedicated our professional lives to public service, we acknowledge that the situation in Iraq is complex and that people of good will can disagree. We acknowledge that a vigorous public debate has risks in wartime; but in a democracy, that is a risk we must accept. “Staying the course” is a greater risk. Absent a genuine collaboration between the White House and Congress, which obviously has not happened, the only way to influence a policy in a democracy is to have a public debate.

Therefore, we feel it is vital at this time to weigh the risks of withdrawing our troops with the risks of keeping them there indefinitely.

Those who argue that the United States should not leave Iraq any time soon, nor set a deadline for beginning to withdraw, point to potential disasters if the United States pulls out before Iraqi forces demonstrate the ability to maintain adequate security. This would be an open-ended commitment, since most experts believe it will take decades to end the insurgency.

In point of fact, the situation in Iraq already is a disaster, both for the American military and for Iraqi civilians. It therefore would be useful to examine what seems likely to, or may, happen if the United States continues on its present course of keeping our troops in Iraq indefinitely. A careful balancing of the risks of leaving compared to the risks of staying could provide a basis for making an informed choice regarding this critical issue.

The risks of leaving

Those who argue that the United States needs to continue to maintain substantial numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq suggest several dangers that are possible, although not inevitable, if the U.S. draws down our troops before Iraqi forces can demonstrate the capability to maintain security while confronted with the current level of insurgency.

Charge #1: There could be a civil war. Only the presence of U.S. forces is keeping some stability in Iraq and precluding a religious war and increased civilian casualties.

Response: There already is a civil war, even if the Administration doesn’t use that term. It is beside the point that one side doesn’t wear uniforms, a common occurrence in today’s warfare. With conservative estimates of 12,000 – 25,000 civilian deaths and many more thousands wounded since the fall of Baghdad, the high level of civil violence is indisputable.

While U.S. troops do provide security in certain locations like the Green Zone, the reality is that daily life in Baghdad is still miserable, journalists can’t leave their hotels, congressional visitors can’t drive from the airport into Baghdad, and suicide bombers continue to kill on a daily basis. The presence of U.S. forces, the collateral damage they cause and the casualties they inflict on Iraqi civilians are major incentives for the recruitment of insurgents. The visible presence of our troops may actually be more of a cause of civil conflict than a solution to it.

Charge #2: Iraq could become a failed state that is a haven for terrorists.

Response: Iraq became a haven for terrorists as a direct result of the U.S. invasion. It is quite possible that ending the occupation would decrease, not increase, terrorist activity; but the larger question is how to deal with the multi-headed monster that Al Qaeda and its supporters have become. We are failing to accord sufficient priority to this threat, due in large part to our preoccupation with the ongoing war in Iraq.

Charge # 3: If the U.S. “cuts and runs,” we will lose prestige and credibility across the globe.

Response: Accusations that arguments for policy change constitute a “cut and run” surrender is an emotional ploy that obfuscates the issue. It is precisely the U.S. intervention in Iraq that has squandered the positive image of, and world sympathy that was felt for, the U.S. immediately after 9/11. According to authoritative polling, after two years of an aggressive U.S. campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East, the Iraq war has made millions suspicious of U.S. intentions; and the polls reveal that most now believe the war has made the world more, not less, dangerous.

Not only do most Europeans view us in a negative light, but our image in the Muslim world is even worse: only about one fifth of Turks, Pakistanis or Jordanians — to name three U.S. allies — view us positively. It is true that American military power is respected and prestigious because it is the strongest in the world; but being regarded as a stubborn bully focused exclusively on our own interests as seen by the Administration does not give our nation the kind of image or credibility we desire and need. It is significant that polls show 80% of Iraqis want the American military to depart. At a recent conference, Iraqi leaders called for the departure of American troops and even suggested that insurgents are justified in killing coalition troops.

The war against extremists cannot be won primarily through the use of force—it is foremost a war of ideas. We are losing that war and our Iraqi policy is one of the contributors to that condition.

The U.S. cannot rebuild its credibility by extending the occupation, but rather by reforming the botched reconstruction program to restore a consistent supply of water, electricity and gasoline to Iraq’s civilian population, and by talking with all parties in the country and region to help rebuild its political structure.

Charge #4: U.S. soldiers will have died in vain.

Response: Soldiers die in vain when we, citizens and leaders alike, do not honor and reflect on their sacrifices, and when we fail to learn from our mistakes as we face the future. We believe that in national security decisions, as well as in the business world and politics, there are times to acknowledge mistakes in policy and cut losses.

  • After a terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. military personnel, President Ronald Reagan decided to eliminate the provocation of U.S. military presence, prevent additional casualties and withdraw our troops. The United States recovered from the setback without serious harm to our national interests.
  • After a long insurgency, Charles de Gaulle withdrew French forces from Algeria because the costs of continuing outweighed the possible benefits for France. Algeria became independent, and France became stronger as a result of its withdrawal.
  • Despite predictions of a resultant disaster for U.S. Cold War interests, the United States completed the withdrawal of our troops from Vietnam after suffering more than 58,000 killed. Even though South Vietnam subsequently fell to the communist north, this country ultimately became much stronger following withdrawal from that quagmire; and U.S. vital interests were not compromised.

What is worse than soldiers dying in vain is even more soldiers dying in vain.

The risks of staying

Any assessment of the impact of withdrawal from Iraq must be balanced against the consequences — and there could be many — of staying indefinitely.

The insurgency could continue to intensify and expand: Using the U.S. military occupation as its clarion call, Al Qaeda has successfully appealed to foreign religious terrorists, Sunnis, and other nationalist elements within Iraq, all bent on ridding the Middle East of American military presence and influence. Even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has conceded the tension between foreign forces needed for protection and their image as occupiers.

Just as the insurgency in Iraq has intensified in the last two years, it is likely to continue to expand its recruitment of foot-soldiers and martyrs, as well as its training and development of new leaders and its mastery of new tactics, many of which will be applicable in other venues. Indeed, the CIA already has warned that Iraq, as a living laboratory of urban combat, could be a more effective training ground for terrorists than was Afghanistan.

With Al Qaeda’s use of Internet web sites now emerging as a primary vehicle to coordinate acts of terrorism, it seems likely that continued western military occupation in Iraq will become an increasingly potent incentive to inspire radicals and their young and avid followers; and it will play a major part in leading to attacks on Americans and other members of the coalition at times and in places least expected. The occupation also will continue to put at risk the lives of Iraqi security forces and moderate Iraqi politicians, perceived as puppets of the U.S.

U.S. casualties will increase: The U.S. has lost over 2,100 killed and over 15,500 wounded or injured in Iraq. In early August 2005, 20 Marines were killed in two days. Retaining a large number of American troops in Iraq subjects them to a growing variety of hostile attacks from what all experts agree is an insurgency that is growing considerably more sophisticated.

International cooperation will be undermined: The number of countries assisting the U.S. in Iraq, most of which provide few troops, has already fallen by a quarter, from 34 last year to 25 today; and five more are due to leave by year’s end. Recently South Korea announced the reduction of its commitment. Furthermore, the international cooperation necessary to confront terrorism may deteriorate further by the continued suspicion of, and hostility toward, the United States in most other countries.

A recent Pew Center international poll shows that the United States is held in low esteem across the globe, particularly in the Muslim world, largely as a result of the U.S. Administration’s foreign policies; and the war in Iraq continues to be deeply unpopular internationally, including with the populaces of our allies. Most countries believe that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has made the world a less safe place. Many are also suspicious that the United States intends to establish permanent bases in Iraq to secure the flow of oil from the region, a charge the Administration has not denied.

U.S. attention will continue to be diverted from other critical security issues: Waging a full-time, unpopular war in Iraq, combined with the recent hurricane disasters, consumes the attention of the Administration’s national security team, resulting in too little consideration of other critical threats to the security of the United States. These include terrorist organizations, unsecured nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union, the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea and loose nuclear materials around the globe available to terrorists. It also detracts attention and funds from protection of our borders, our ports, our nuclear and chemical plants, our food and water supplies, and our domestic transportation system.

The U.S. military will be stretched to the breaking point: In January 2004, Lieutenant General John Riggs said: “I have been in the Army 39 years, and I’ve never seen it as stretched in that 39 years as I have today;” and it is more stretched now. Despite increased incentives and lowered standards, the Army is unable to meet its recruitment goals.

If the U.S. maintains troops in Iraq indefinitely at or near current levels, the ability of our armed forces to protect our national security interests in the rest of the world, including in Afghanistan where the Taliban has mounted a reinvigorated insurgency, will continue to decline.

It is evident that many junior and mid-grade officers, discouraged by the prospect of repeated tours in Iraq, are resigning their commissions after fulfilling their mandatory service obligations, rather than opting for careers in the military. The difficulties faced by the armed forces today will lead to a deterioration of the quality of the Army from which it will take many years to recover.

The Army National Guard and Reserve will be depleted further. Lieutenant General James Helmley, Chief of the Army Reserve, warned at the end of 2004: the Army Reserve “is rapidly degenerating into a broken force” and is “in grave danger of being unable to meet other operational requirements.” The Army National Guard has been similarly affected.

Military families, beset by long and too frequent separations, will continue to suffer. The divorce rate in the active-duty military has increased 40 percent since 2000.

The number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs has dramatically increased, far beyond Administration’s predictions earlier this year. VA budget documents had projected 23,553 such veterans, but the total is likely to reach 103,000 for the fiscal year that ended 30 September. Veterans’ health care programs could be short more than $2 billion next year without an emergency infusion of funds.

The costly quagmire will continue: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told Fox News this summer that “Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years.” The President has said that U.S. troops will be withdrawn when Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining security on their own; but meeting this criterion is unlikely in the foreseeable future, in part due to the complete lack of Iraqi combat support and combat service support units.

Notification of our troop withdrawal would energize the Iraqi government to assume responsibility to organize and train the forces it deems necessary for security.

We already have spent well over $200 billion on the war in Iraq, and it currently is costing us more than $5 billion a month. Hurricane relief is expected to cost at least $200 billion. The resulting deficits are simply not sustainable.

The “credibility gap” will intensify: Once again, after many years, we see the return of an ominous credibility gap in the middle of a war. The majority of the American public is coming to reject the Vice President’s prediction that the insurgency is “in its last throes,” concluding instead that the war in Iraq, even if the original rationale justified the invasion, is not making Americans safer from terrorism.

American government credibility will continue to be undermined by optimistic forecasts of success. Already, public opinion polls indicate a widening gap. A November Washington Post poll found that approval of Bush’s Iraq policy has fallen to 36% with 64% disapproving. Only 39% in the same poll agreed that the war was worth fighting. A number of polls show increasing numbers of American agreeing that some or all U.S. troops should be brought home. As we learned from the Vietnam experience, we cannot sustain a military campaign over the long term without public support.

U.S. strategy in Iraq has been based on faulty premises. Moreover, the decision simply to “stay the course” reflects an ideological rigidity that can be disastrous for our national security. It is time to cut our losses. We should begin to disengage early in 2006, after the Iraqi elections scheduled for this December. The withdrawal of U.S. troops should be orderly and phased, but prompt, and coordinated in advance with our allies and Iraqi officials.

The United States should announce unequivocally that we have no intention of establishing permanent bases for a long-term military presence in Iraq. And we should continue to assist both rebuilding efforts in Iraq and efforts to spread democracy in the region.

There may well be some negative consequences as a result of withdrawing of U.S. troops, but fewer, we believe, than if we continue on the present course. Ultimately, the United States will be stronger if we leave the quagmire that is Iraq to resolution by its own citizens.

Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA-ret.) served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, retiring from the U.S. Army in 1981 following almost five years as president of the National Defense University. He subsequently directed the Johns Hopkins University Center in Bologna, Italy, for five years, and was president of the Monterey institute of International Studies for almost eleven years.

Brigadier General John Johns (USA-ret.) was a combat arms officer in the U.S. Army for 26 years, including service in Vietnam. Following retirement from the U.S. Army in 1978, he served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for four years. He then joined the faculty of the National Defense University, where he taught ethics, political science and strategic decision-making before being appointed academic dean of one of the University’s senior colleges.