Amid growing violence in Iraq, many Americans are looking for a reasonable timetable for withdrawal. Late last month, Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) pointed to the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections as a useful milestone, and suggested that "the time is coming to consider gradually withdrawing U.S. troops from the country."
It isn't clear what "gradually" means, but Manzullo's comments were a hopeful sign. More than 2-1/2 years after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq to be over, more than 2,000 Americans have been killed and thousands more have been wounded. Americans might be willing to tolerate such losses if they saw Iraq making meaningful progress toward political self-sufficiency and genuine sovereignty. But even physical security seems out of reach for Iraqis. Violence has increased since the January 2005 elections. October 2005 was the fourth-bloodiest month on record for U.S. troops; August 2005 ranked fifth. And President Bush warns that the violence will likely get worse in the coming months.
Ten months ago, we were told that the January elections were a potential turning point in the ongoing struggle in Iraq. Progress on the political front was supposed to take the wind out of the insurgents' sails. In retrospect -- and tragically -- we can see that the elections did not have that effect.
It is unreasonable to expect Americans to tolerate, much less support, a military strategy that is dependent upon a highly uncertain political process in Iraq. The nationwide parliamentary elections to be held in December can serve as a symbolic but useful stepping stone for the Bush administration to begin an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. The elections represent the last best hope, a narrow -- and closing -- window of opportunity, to leave Iraq on our terms. The United States got rid of Saddam Hussein's government, the Iraqis drafted and ratified a constitution, and in December they will elect a parliament under that constitution. The next political benchmark may not come along for years; as currently written, the Iraqi constitution does not require the government to hold another parliamentary election until near the end of 2009.
Can we realistically sustain a major military presence in Iraq for four more years or longer? According to a recent CBS News poll, Nearly six in 10 Americans believe that the United States "should leave Iraq as soon as possible." The choice may be between an orderly withdrawal starting now or something far less honorable when the political will evaporates.
Many Iraqis already chafe at the presence of foreign troops in their country. According to the Telegraph of London, a poll commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense found that 45 percent of Iraqis believed that attacks on coalition forces were justified at least some of the time, and a staggering 82 percent of those polled indicated that they were "strongly opposed" to the presence of foreign troops. There is no reason to believe that these numbers will quickly turn around.
In the wake of an American withdrawal, violence in Iraq may well increase. That would be tragic, but our government's obligation to the people of Iraq is superseded by its obligation to the people of the United States. Is it moral to ask American soldiers to die on the outside chance that their sacrifice will lead to a stable, united, democratic Iraq?
The exact contours of a post-withdrawal Iraq are uncertain, but no more uncertain than a future in which tens of thousands of American troops remain in Iraq for many more years. Given that the number of insurgent attacks and American casualties continues to rise, even as the U.S. troop presence has remained stable or even increased slightly, there is little reason to believe that "staying the course" will someday reverse those trends.
Now is the time to chart a new course. The first step should be a firm pledge to begin the withdrawal of American troops soon after the December 2005 elections. The Bush administration should further commit to have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2007 at the latest. By taking these steps to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq, we will reaffirm that the elections are the culmination of a political process that Americans started, but that Iraqis must finish.