Bush Must Find Exit Strategy from Iraq

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review, Oct. 1, 2003.
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Despite the confident tone he presented in his recent speech to the United Nations, President George Bush has acknowledged that the United States faces a “security issue in Iraq”, a “massive and long‐​term undertaking.” The conflict will soak up a large share of American military strength for years.

Even if Washington wins approval for a new UN resolution, it is unlikely to find many nations, other than Turkey, set to receive $US8.5 billion ($13 billion) in loans, willing to offer occupation troops to reduce the burden.

And America’s own servicemen are likely to prove unenthused about fulfilling long‐​term garrison duties: they may vote with their feet when re‐​enlistment rolls around. The Bush administration desperately needs to plan an expeditious exit from Iraq. American casualties are climbing weekly with an average of 15 to 20 violent incidents a day. If truck bombs become routine and anti‐​aircraft missiles find targets, the death toll could mount frightfully.

In peacetime, the US army has traditionally aimed to deploy only a third of its units at any one time. The problem is made more acute by America’s other foreign commitments.

Although tours in countries such as Britain and Germany include families, few people want to join the army if doing so means rarely seeing America.

Of 33 active‐​duty combat brigades, 21 have been deployed: 16 to Iraq, two each to Afghanistan and South Korea, and one in the Balkans. Given other commitments and refitting, only three brigades are available as replacement forces for Iraq.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations panel warned that “even the lowest suggested requirements of 75,000 troops” in the occupation force would result in army infantrymen spending “six months in Iraq out of every 18 to 24”.

In fact, tours in Iraq will be for one year, double the normal time for “peacekeeping” missions.

Moreover, army officials privately acknowledge that up to a quarter of soldiers may have to serve back‐​to‐​back overseas tours.

Relying more on the reserves is another poor option. Some of the 210,000 reserves and national guard at present on active duty already have served for more than a year.

Frequent deployments force reservists to leave their jobs as well as families, often causing a ruinous loss of income. Army trucks in Iraq have been festooned with the sign: “One Weekend A Month My Ass”.

Internationalising the occupation would help, which is one reason President Bush addressed the UN.

But most of the existing foreign contingents are small and dependent on the US for war fighting capability. For instance, Hungary has provided a few truck drivers without trucks.

More serious contributions from Europe, India and leading Muslim states are unlikely unless the administration yields authority to other countries or the UN.

And if the conflict worsens, other nations will be even less inclined to help. Japan is already backing off its commitment out of fear of casualties.

The best would be to encourage Iraqi self‐​government. But a US‐​appointed governing council dominated by émigrés alone seems unlikely to yield stability. Moreover, co‐​operation between American troops and Iraqi police so far has been poor.

Proposals now abound to add two or more divisions to the US army. But doing so may prove difficult once potential recruits consider where they are likely to serve their tours. Better to rethink other deployments.

For instance, there is no need to garrison manpower‐​rich South Korea, which far outranges its northern antagonist. The Balkans is a region of interest only to Europe.

Equally important, Washington should adopt more modest objectives in Iraq. The President has said “we will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory”.

The US should push Iraqi self‐​rule and indicate its willingness to accept almost any Iraqi government, so long as Baghdad doesn’t dabble in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The administration must develop something it has long derided, an exit strategy.