Conditions are not right for wholesale withdrawal

An examination of existing Coalition responsibilities and committments in Iraq, where there is now a move towards overwatch; Coalition troops are being taken off the streets but ready to back up Iraqi forces if necessary.

It is a feature of complex emergencies that foreign intervention forces engaged in proactive security measures are likely in the course of time to be increasingly vilified in popular perception, particularly if forces from the same nations were part of the original occupation. That popularity can be managed and General Petraeus is working towards ‘overwatch’ where the troops are off the streets but ready to back up Iraqi security forces if the situation gets out of hand. British forces in Basra Province have already made this shift.

The Report of General David Petraeus, Commander Multi-National Force – Iraq, given to Congress on 10 and 11 September 2007, as expected, presents the surge of US troops in recent months as successful in reducing security incidents in recent months. He also recommends a reduction in US force levels in Iraq to the pre-surge level by July 2008. Needless to say his assertions about reduced levels of violence have been contested by Democratic Congressional Committee members, in other studies and by the media where the General’s own objectivity and independence from White House influence has been questioned.

It bears mention that Members of Congress have, sensibly, generally seen it as an own goal to challenge the integrity of a general who is held in great respect nationally and internationally. A senior commander needs to present his assessment of the security situation in the public domain with thought to a number of factors, not least the perceptions and morale of his own troops in theatre. The difficult challenge is to present a fluid situation realistically but in a positive way. It would certainly not be in his interests as a responsible military leader to talk up a successful security situation nor to recommend inappropriate troop withdrawals thereby putting remaining troops at increased risk while sending a message of capitulation to malign groups. Furthermore Petraeus would have little to gain in pandering to the White House at this stage in an unpopular Administration notwithstanding his duties to his Commander-in-Chief. The world at large should take the Report as the senior military commander’s honest and considered view of the security situation and of future courses of action. That is not to say that his Government – and that is of course in the American context, Congress as well as the Administration, should not import wider considerations into decisions as to the future of the intervention in Iraq.

In this respect Democratic Members of Congress have spoken of the national interest as the deciding factor praying to popular support for an early and wholesale withdrawal from Iraq. There is frequent mention in the press of the Vietnam analogy. But this is not a Vietnam where the intervention was in support of an existing government of questionable probity with a view to the containment of communism. When popular support dwindled, it was a matter of allowing a domino to fall but in the context of a global strategy of extended deterrence and defence with hugely strained resources. In Iraq the United States removed a government. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that decision, it has an overwhelming moral responsibility for the security of the Iraqi people until adequate alternatives exist. Of course democratic governments need popular mandates – but conversely in a democracy the people bear moral responsibility for the actions of their governments that transcend specific administrations. This is not a responsibility that can be voted away.

There are of course circumstances when it would be morally right for intervention forces to withdraw wholesale from Iraq regardless of the mess that is left behind. The most obvious of these is absolutely conclusive evidence supported widely in the international community that the presence of intervention forces was worsening the security situation. We are not at that stage in Iraq. Nor would it ever be an easy judgment to make bearing in mind that a key weapon of insurgents particularly confronting democracies is prolongation – escalation in time. However, it is a feature of complex emergencies that intervention forces engaged in proactive security measures involving regular recourse to combat are likely in the course of time to be increasingly vilified in popular perception particularly if forces from the same nations were part of the original occupation. Overwatch – withdrawal from the streets to the status of operational reserve in support of indigenous security forces is a clear course of action and one towards which Petraeus is working when it is feasible and appropriate.

Other reasons for a wholesale withdrawal would be a request from the Iraqi government that is judged to be widely supported nationally and internationally and this may relate to the first reason. In any event there would be weak legal grounds for US forces to remain in these circumstances. A final reason would be replacement by an international military force which would allow for the removal of any forces associated with the original combat phase. But such a force would for the foreseeable future need significant combat capability. An old style United National peacekeeping force would not have this capacity. NATO would be inappropriate because of US dominance. A European Union led force would be inconceivable bearing in mind the fraught history of the intervention even bearing in mind new leadership in France and Germany and the healing of old wounds.

Implications for British forces

What are the implications for British forces in the South of Iraq? Clearly the United Kingdom is similarly morally committed but its role as very much the junior partner limits this commitment to its existing responsibilities in the South. Progressive withdrawal from overt presence on the streets to one of overwatch has been pre-planned and is not a reaction to a temporarily worsening situation in Basra. It would have been predicted as the right course when the situation permitted by any wise military analyst. Britain should see through its responsibilities in the South – the areas assigned to it by the paramount coalition leader – but should not feel committed to maintaining a presence proportional to that of the US because the situation elsewhere in Iraq does not allow large US withdrawals. Criticism of the UK’s lack of commitment from parties in the US is completely unfounded and unjustified.

Michael Codner is Director of Military Sciences at RUSI

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Michael Codner

Senior Associate Fellow for Military History

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