When will the United States draw down its troops occupying Iraq? In the political showdown between the president and the Congress over the war in Iraq, attention has focused on legislating a specific timetable for troop withdrawal. This issue will be revisited in September, when debate over war funding begins again.
But we already have a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq, whether or not the specific language was included in the law. In 18 months we will have a new president. No matter which candidate or political party wins the 2008 presidential election, no one will be as wed to the current policy in Iraq as is this administration. Troops will be withdrawing in 18 months, whoever wins the White House.
There are a number of reasons for this. Republicans want significant troop withdrawals to occur before the fall 2008 elections in order to boost their electoral chances. Democrats want troop withdrawals to show the public that they heard and responded to their electoral mandate in 2004. And practically, the volunteer Army cannot sustain the current operational tempo indefinitely.
The question is not whether the United States will draw down its troops in Iraq, but what we will do in the meantime to help the Iraqi people build a just and sustainable peace in their country. Will we pursue a responsible transition as we go? There is no military solution in Iraq, despite debates over the military surge policy or immediate withdrawal. As the occupying force in Iraq, the United States has international legal responsibilities, and withdrawals take time. The gradual draw-down that will occur between these two extremes is the policy space we have. Having unnecessarily and regrettably invaded Iraq, the United States bears the responsibility, legally and morally, to try to do our best by the Iraqi people, not to do what is most politically expedient or will most benefit U.S. candidates, parties and corporations. The Iraqi people have borne the brunt of the U.S. invasion. Currently 3,000 Iraqi civilians are dying each month in the violence—a monthly Sept. 11.
What do the Iraqi people think would be helpful at this juncture? Polling of Iraqis yields a somber picture. They do not trust us. According to a University of Maryland poll and other polls, 80 percent of Iraqis suspect the United States plans permanent military bases in Iraq; 87 percent favor setting a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces; 65 percent oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. And between 47 percent and 61 percent of Iraqis support the attacks on U.S.-led forces. But only 36 percent of Baghdad residents want U.S. troops to leave now, according to polls by ABC News.
In the four years since invading Iraq, the United States has focused too much on the military and not enough on the political, economic and social requirements for reconciliation and building peace. The list of failures on the part of U.S. leadership is lengthy. De-Baathification stripped the government of trained civil servants and left Sunnis no stake in the current state and every reason to fight. By the U.S. military’s own figures, the number of insurgents in Iraq has increased to 70,000 today from between 3,000 and 5,000 in 2004. Of this 70,000 only around 1,000 are Al Qaeda or foreign fighters. The United States spent reconstruction dollars on U.S. contractors instead of giving Iraqis jobs and a stake in their own country, and economic reconstruction moved too slowly and accomplished too little. The United States has focused on training Iraqi police and security forces, but without a moderate, nonviolent power-sharing political center, these will be used in violence to come. Reconciliation and power sharing have not been effectively pursued. Four years after the invasion, there is still no agreement on sharing oil revenue among the factions in Iraq, no progress on new election laws, scheduling provincial elections, disbanding the militias, amending the constitution to address Sunni concerns, increasing Sunni participation in the government and developing a plan of national reconciliation. These failures are all the more regrettable because they were avoidable.
The Catholic Church has been right about Iraq. Prior to the invasion the Vatican and the U.S. bishops cautioned against it. During the invasion and occupation, Catholic Relief Services and others serve the poor, the refugees and internally displaced most at risk, even as our own government abandons the two million refugees and one million internally displaced our invasion has created. After the church’s warnings came true, rather than say, “We told you so,” the U.S. bishops have been counseling a policy of responsible transition and of political, economic and social reconstruction to build a just and sustainable peace in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Peace does not happen simply because we wish it. It happens when we do the work of negotiating with warring parties and unsavory characters, when we help refugees so they are not overcome by cycles of conflict, when we strengthen international institutions and coalitions, when we create just, inclusive economic and political orders that give all a stake in the system. The United States must use these next 18 months in Iraq—better than it has used the previous four years— to work with others to create a framework for a just peace.