Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Reasoned Discussion about Withdrawing from Iraq – Kevin Benson Writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

My friend, Scott Leishman, is a member of the United States Military Academy Class of 1977. He was kind enough to include me in the distribution of an e-mail that went to his West Point class members, highlighting an Op-Ed piece that appeared on Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The piece, written by recently-retired US Army Colonel Kevin Benson, USMA ’77, strikes me as one of the most concise, balanced and well-reasoned discussions I have seen to date of our options for withdrawing from Iraq in a way that makes sense.

By way of further background, in his e-mail, Scott included these comments from another of their West Point classmates:

“Classmates, please note also the author of the below article is fellow classmate Kevin Benson, a Harvard Grad (after USMA) who wrote the “op-plan” for the sand box wars when he was working in the five sided puzzle palace (Pentagon).”

Shift The Debate On Iraq From 'When' To 'How'

By Kevin Benson, For the Journal-Constitution

Once Gen. David Petraeus delivers his report to Congress in September, the debate will begin in earnest over a new direction for our Iraq strategy. That strategy must be based on the understanding that U.S. and coalition forces are an antibody that the Arab body politic instinctively rejects.

The longer we remain in Iraq, the more we become occupiers in the mind of the Iraqi people. Every act of kindness by U.S. and coalition troops, every effort to win Iraqi hearts and minds, will be buried by terrorist acts of violence, and every U.S. and coalition misstep will be magnified. Handing out candy and toys to Iraqi children cannot compete with vivid images of explosions and violent death. In Iraq's 24/7 news cycle, as in ours, if it bleeds, it leads.

The first step in a new approach is a public commitment to the Iraqi people that on a date mutually agreed to by the coalition and the Iraqi government, foreign troops will leave Iraq. My own suggestion for the date is July 4, 2008. On that date our forces should withdraw from Iraq. A fixed date is required for domestic reasons here at home and in Iraq, and as a spur to international involvement in Iraq.

A fixed date moves the debate from when to leave Iraq to how we will leave Iraq. This is an important shift. To address fears of a widened civil war in Iraq, tensions between Turkey and the Kurds, etc., we must talk seriously about political and economic conditions the coalition and Iraqi government will establish while coalition troops are operating in Iraq.

The spur of a fixed date will move the debate from the theoretical to the practical. Everyone in Iraq has a stake in establishing a consistent level of security for the people and the health of the Iraqi economy. A stable Iraq is in the interests of all the countries of the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fears of a widened war can be mitigated by an international and regional commitment to a stable Iraq.

This is not "cutting and running" it is merely honoring a public promise to the people of Iraq that the coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein is not interested in occupying their country.

Setting conditions

As we prepare to withdraw, we should also begin to shift the mission of our military in Iraq. Its two main goals must be to build the capability of Iraqi security forces in preparation for giving them the responsibility of protecting the people, and to continue the so-far successful effort to destroy al-Qaida in Iraq. Coalition governments should commit to a maximum political, economic and military effort to establish basic security throughout Iraq, to train and equip Iraqi armed forces, and to ensure that ministries are functioning and the government is secure and acting in the interests of the people. This maximum effort will be sustained to the date of departure, at which time the government and people of Iraq will operate on their own. These are coalition victory conditions.

Accomplishing all these conditions will require the support of the people of the nations that make up the coalition, our country in particular, and the equally vital commitment of the Iraqi people. Our expectations for Iraq must also be realistic; Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy took a long time to flourish in our own country. Ultimately, the future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people.

After the September report to Congress, we will have to adjust the size and purpose of the U.S. force in Iraq. Building on the conditions established by the "surge" of reinforcements, we should reduce the size of the combat forces and focus on the adviser mission. To be successful, the "exit strategy" for Iraq requires a diligent effort by our military to send our very best people as advisers to the Iraqi armed forces. These soldiers must be those best suited for this task: dedicated people with a sense of balance and judgment who can assist Iraqi units in becoming increasingly competent and able to learn from each engagement with a cunning enemy.

Building a viable nation

This force of advisers, 10,000 to 15,000 troops, must be supported by a tcombat element of four to six Army brigade or Marine regimental combat teams -- 20,000 to 30,000 troops -- in key areas around the country. The entire force should be under the command of one headquarters. This headquarters must closely coordinate its actions with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who must ensure that the policy efforts to stabilize Iraq are supported by the military efforts in Iraq.

Ensuring that Iraq becomes a viable nation will not be easy. But we must set the date for the withdrawal of coalition forces and the conditions that will be met by that date. Our people must know the cost, and why it is necessary to pay this cost. The military must invest its very best people in the task of advising, to honor what amounts to a contract with the Iraqi people.

There are people who equate Iraq to Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam. There is no equivalent to the government of North Vietnam and its divisions, waiting until we leave to crush the South Vietnamese army and take Saigon. But in trying to reduce the American presence in Iraq while ensuring the viability of the Iraqi government, civilian policy-makers and military planners must keep in mind those chilling scenes from Saigon's fall, with the remaining Americans escaping with Vietnamese friends and co-workers in a series of frantic air- and sealifts.

That's why we have to set a withdrawal date and manage that withdrawal properly. Without it, we risk a later withdrawal forced by an increasingly disenchanted U.S. populace, managed by a U.S. government paralyzed by a lack of cooperation between branches of government on policy and execution. Those are the circumstances that led to the nightmare of Saigon's fall more than 30 years ago, and we can't repeat that mistake this time.

Look at a map; helicopters cannot make the trip from the Green Zone in Baghdad to ships in the Persian Gulf in one flight.

Kevin Benson retired from the Army as a colonel in July after 30 years. He was the director of plans for coalition ground forces and directed the development of the invasion plan of Iraq in 2003. He also was director of the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

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