“Iraq could move toward civil war,” the commander of U.S. Central Command conceded to Congress on Thursday. Gen. John Abizaid said securing Baghdad was the top U.S. priority, and that the violence there was as bad as he had ever seen it. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Chuck Hagel, a Democrat of Connecticut and Republican of Nebraska, have since said they believe an Iraqi civil war has already begun. Amid soaring civilian casualties, other U.S. commanders have said American troops will need to remain in Iraq until at least 2016. Why would anyone want to keep U.S. troops in such an environment for another decade to referee a burgeoning blood feud between Sunnis and Shiites?
Let’s be clear what staying in Iraq until 2016 might mean. More than 2,550 American troops have already perished in the Iraq conflict — an average of a little more than 800 a year. If that pace did not slacken — and there is no evidence it would — there would be another 8,000 dead Americans by 2016. At that point, U.S. fatalities in Iraq would exceed the number the Soviet Union suffered during its ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The financial cost would be staggering as well. According to the Congressional Research Service, as of mid-June, the tab for the Iraq mission is already more than $319 billion, and the meter is now running at approximately $80 billion a year. Another decade in Iraq would mean an additional $800 billion of taxpayers’ money down the drain, bringing the total cost of Washington’s Persian Gulf intervention to more than $1 trillion.
Even those who argue that a huge sacrifice is necessary to make Iraq into a model of democracy and transform the Middle East into a region of peace and stability ought to reconsider their views in light of the emerging reality. A recent U.N. report provides the depressing news that more than 14,000 Iraqi civilians have died violently in the first six months of 2006, mostly from insurgent attacks or sectarian strife. And the trend is even more worrisome. The death toll in January was 1,778; in June it was 3,149. Put another way, the carnage is now running at more than 100 victims each day.
We must remember that this is occurring in a country of only 27 million people. A comparable pace in the United States would be a horrifying 1,200 deaths per day — 438,000 per year. If political violence were consuming that many American lives, there would be little debate about whether the United States was experiencing a civil war.
It is time — indeed, it is long past time — for an exit strategy to get all American troops out of Iraq. No reasonable person should contemplate maintaining a military presence in Iraq for a decade.
Opponents of withdrawal protest that we will leave Iraq in chaos. We might, but advocates of staying the course do not explain how the United States can prevent the contending factions in Iraq from fighting the civil war which they already seem to have started. At least, no one has explained how the United States can keep the peace there at anything resembling a reasonable cost in American blood and treasure. In the early days of the war, proponents assumed that no more than a few hundred U.S. lives would be lost, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz assured Congress that Iraq’s oil revenue would pay for most of the mission.
Nevertheless, proponents of staying the course argue that, whatever the practical obstacles, we have a moral obligation to the Iraqi people not to withdraw until the job of building a stable democracy is done. Leaving aside the very real possibility that the job might never be done, that argument begs a fundamental question: What about the moral obligation of the U.S. government to its own soldiers and to the American people? There is clearly an obligation not to waste either American lives or American tax dollars. We are doing both in Iraq. Staying the course is not a moral strategy; it is the epitome of an immoral one.
Keeping our troops in harm’s way for another decade while Iraq slides further into sectarian civil war is a policy that should appeal only to masochists. We need an exit strategy that is measured in months, not years.