Why McCain Should Embrace Withdrawal

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's support for a timetable for the withdrawal of American combat forces has created a political firestorm in the United States with most of the commentary focused on how his statements reinforce Barack Obama's policies. John McCain and other proponents of a continued large U.S. presence in Iraq have dismissed Maliki's position as unimportant, arguing that it is "only" the result of the domestic political pressures inside Iraq.

McCain is right that this is ultimately about Iraqi domestic politics. But insurgencies and counterinsurgency strategies are, at their very core, all about domestic politics. A close study of the Army's own Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine suggests that the Maliki government's position should be recognized as an important and positive development. It signals the beginning of the end of the Iraq War as the American military takes on an increasingly smaller role while handing off more responsibility to the Iraqi Security Forces and withdrawing.

Despite confusion and various halfhearted retractions from Iraqi politicians and attempted explanations by the White House, it is apparent that Maliki's statements represent a sea change inside Iraq. There is today a consensus within the Iraq body politic for setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American combat forces. The Iraqi public is overwhelmingly supportive of an American withdrawal. Muqtada al Sadr and other opponents of Maliki's coalition have always called for a withdrawal and made it one of the cornerstones of their political platform.

Two weeks ago Maliki expressed similar views only pulling back after pressure from the White House. Iraq's National Security Advisor Mouwaffak al-Rubaie and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi both reaffirmed this position in recent weeks and Maliki's spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh stated authoritatively on Monday that "We can't give any schedules or dates, but the Iraqi government sees the suitable date for withdrawal of the U.S. forces is by the end of 2010." In fact, even the Bush administration has accepted this reality and is now negotiating "time horizons" as part of an agreement that will govern the legal status of American forces in Iraq.

It is hard to imagine how these developments won't reshape or at least dramatically influence the military's COIN strategy in Iraq According to Army COIN Field Manual, written by General David Petraeus and considered the definitive work on the subject, "Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate." The government and the insurgents are in a competition for the support of the public and whichever side is able to provide security and basic services and govern legitimately is going to prevail.

Iraq is more complicated than the average insurgency because, in addition to Sunni insurgents, the central government has had to deal with various Shi'a militias, al Qaeda in Iraq and other non-state actors. However, when dealing with all these groups the basic formula remains the same: security, services, and legitimacy.

In this context the United States must listen to the Iraqi government's demands or risk endangering the gains that have been made during the past 18 months. Over that time the Iraqi government and its security forces have increasingly taken a more central role in providing security and have increased their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. However, one of the key elements still working against them is the heavy dependence on the U.S. military presence, which is highly unpopular inside Iraq.

Thus, Maliki's recent declaration was not, as John McCain would have you believe, just the Iraqi government playing politics. Instead, it was a genuine attempt by the Iraqi government to increase its legitimacy with its people -- a critical element of counterinsurgency. One of the main factors limiting the Iraqi government’s credibility with its own people is its complete dependence on the United States. Maliki's declarations were meant to limit that perception and shore up domestic support. After coming out so strongly and publicly for a gradual American withdrawal, the Maliki government has made it all but impossible to walk back. If it were to now sign an agreement that did not include some specific target dates for withdrawal or that tried to preserve the permanent South Korea-like presence that John McCain has long advocated, it would be seen by its own people as a weak American puppet instead of the legitimate government that it must become.

This could in turn lead to a dramatic opening for opponents of the government. For example, Muqtada Al Sadr, who has already used opposition to the U.S. military presence to his political advantage and still has the capacity to mobilize large numbers of Mehdi Army militiamen to fight on his behalf, could at some point decide to forgo political bargaining and return to fighting. Similarly, the former Sunni insurgents now known as the Sons of Iraq are currently cooperating with the U.S. military against Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, they still distrust the Maliki Government which has been slow to integrate them into the Iraqi Security Forces and may at some point choose to turn against the central government. A government that is seen as a complete puppet of the United States would find itself in a weakened position -- unable to garner the necessary support against these types of threats.

Petraeus's counterinsurgency manual also makes clear the Iraqi Government's desire for a timeline should be seen as an important step forward: "The long-term goal is to leave a government able to stand by itself. In the end, the host nation has to win on its own. ... Eventually all foreign armies are seen as interlopers or occupiers; the sooner the main effort can transition to Host Nation institutions, without unacceptable degradation, the better." Of course, it is quite likely that, buoyed by its recent successes, the Maliki Government is overestimating its own capabilities and the U.S. should take care to withdraw carefully in a way that minimizes the likelihood of the situation deteriorating. But with that caveat in place, counterinsurgency doctrine dictates that this assertion of independence is an important step. It should be welcomed -- not derided as political posturing or suppressed by a White House seeking a permanent presence in Iraq.

In the end, COIN doctrine tells us that Prime Minister Maliki's recent assertions are a crucial turning point as Iraqis being to declare their own independence. This moment should be seized on to begin transitioning to a more limited mission that acts to support the Iraqis instead of taking the lead, and which requires a much smaller U.S. force presence. This is the position that Barack Obama has had all along. John McCain would be wise to accept this new reality and move to Obama's position, instead of continuing to reject the major breakthrough that has occurred.