Project Description

Copyright: Defense in Depth, Council on Foreign Relations, June 24, 2014

We Never Should Have Left Iraq.” “Who Lost Iraq?” “Bush warned this would happen in Iraq.” “Obama’s Iraq disaster.” “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine.” “Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.”

Amid news of terrible losses inflicted upon the Iraqi government by advancing Sunni militants, accusations have flown as to who should bear responsibility for ceding the hard-fought gains of the Iraq War. A number of recent commentaries—many by planners and supporters of the initial 2003 invasion—have placed blame squarely on President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011.

If only the United States had remained in Iraq longer, they argue, the Iraqi state under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might have stabilized itself. Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, goes a step further, asserting that Iraq required an open-ended security commitment akin to the United States’ sixty-year defense of South Korea following the 1953 armistice. It is a parallel he has made before.

Taken as a whole, however, these critics offer little in the way of actionable alternatives. Their most commonly articulated position—that U.S. troops should have simply stayed “until the job was done”—does not represent a viable strategy. In fact, it represents the opposite of strategy.

Let’s begin with the remarkable (and untenable) equivalencies drawn between post-war Korea and post-war Iraq. In wake of the Korean War, American troops garrisoned the peninsula to provide a bulwark against renewed aggression by North Korean forces. Their primary mission was outward-facing deterrence, not national reconstruction. Because North and South Korea remain at odds, there has been a continued need for American presence in the region.

By comparison, the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq after 2003 were tasked with reconstituting a shattered state. There were no overt, existential threats to deter. Instead, the threat came from a spectrum of sectarian groups, each of which was set on committing terrible acts against the others. Because American soldiers stood between these groups, they bore attacks from all sides. The U.S. mission, therefore was to quell the violence enough to give Iraqis the chance to reconcile and build a functioning state. Americans could create the conditions for victory, but only Maliki and Iraq’s political leadership could achieve lasting strategic success.

After years of bitter setback, the U.S. military began to achieve its operational objective in 2007. This followed a surge in overall troop numbers—to a peak strength of 168,000, more than the initial invasion force—as well as a shift to counterinsurgency doctrine,  a policy of rapprochement with moderate Sunnis, and Sunni and Shiites’ own growing neighborhood segregation. The result was an 80 percent decrease in roadside bombings and a virtual standstill in sectarian violence.


However, as Fred Kaplan writes in The Insurgents, this success came with caveats:

[I]n the broader scheme, this shift, however dramatic, had only tactical consequences. The surge and the [counterinsurgency] campaign that went with it were—explicitly—mere means to an end…By the summer of 2007, it was clear that the American troops were fulfilling their part of the bargain.

The question was whether the Iraqi factions would take advantage of the breathing space. Would they strike an agreement on sharing oil wealth? Would the Kurds and Sunni Arabs settle their property disputes in Kirkuk? Perhaps most important for the country’s future, would Maliki incorporate the [moderate Sunnis] into the national Iraqi army? And if these things didn’t happen, would the surge and the new strategy turn out to have only prolonged the fighting and compounded the war’s tragic waste?

With hindsight, the answer to these questions is clearly “no.” As Dexter Filkins demonstratedin his revealing profile of Maliki, the Prime Minister used the four years of “breathing space” bought by American troops to consolidate authority, dismember the constitutional checks on his ministerial power, and shape Iraq’s armed forces (American-trained and funded) into a virtually Shiite-exclusive enterprise. Indeed, it was Maliki who ultimately jettisoned U.S. soldiers in 2011 in order to court influence with Iran and Shiite hardliners. His “compromise” offer of a small U.S. contingent garrison, bereft of immunity from Iraqi law, was an obvious poison pill.

If there is criticism to be leveled against the United States’ post-2007 Iraq policy, it should be of the failure to apply political pressure to Maliki commensurate with the military gains. Partly, this was a consequence of poor or absent civil planning that pre-dated the 2003 invasion. The creation of Iraq’s post-war government was due less to a grand strategic road map than a series of disjointed, ad hoc initiatives. It was not possible to take bold political action if there was little sense what a proper civil end-state might look like.

Compounding this challenge, in their efforts to avoid showing any hint of occupation, U.S. administrators guided Maliki with a lighter hand than they should have. Such behavior ran counter to effective counterinsurgency practice, which, as Dr. Walter Ladwig argues, requires concerted political pressure on the host government in order to “lock in” the counterinsurgent’s military gains. This ultimately represented a significant failing, although it is not the failing identified by many of today’s most vocal critics.


Given the circumstances under which the United States operated, it is difficult to see, if Maliki had been afforded three further years of direct military support—troops with targets painted on their backs—how the Iraqi state could have fared better so long as the current Prime Minister remained at the helm. Keeping a U.S. garrison beyond 2011 might have maintained security, but it would have brought Iraq little closer to sustainable democracy. Keeping that garrison over the objection of Iraq’s elected government would surely have made things worse. Either way, more American lives might have been lost.

At the hands of another leader, strategic victory might have come easier in Iraq—but this is a counterfactual. Maliki’s candidacy was vetted and backed by the CIA in 2006; in time,  he had become the subject of path dependency. By 2011, the ouster of Maliki, twice-elected, might well have undermined the entire credibility Iraqi democratization. If Maliki is removed now, as many are advocating, it may address an immediate problem, but it will still be a process of many years to reach an enduring political conciliation.  And such a transition in leadership must be driven by the Iraqi people.

Ultimately, those insisting that the United States military should have remained in Iraq indefinitely—akin to the open-ended American commitment in Korea—do not champion a practical alternative so much as a hope that things could have eventually gotten better. While a powerful emotional appeal, this is not a strategy.

Given the realistic options with which it was faced, the United States was right to end combat operations in 2011. It should not have stayed longer, and it should not redeploy in large numbers now.