When to Leave Iraq

Today, Tomorrow, or Yesterday?

A resident gestures as he talks to a U.S. soldier from 2nd Brigade combat team in Baghdad, January 5, 2008. Picture taken January 5, 2008. Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud / Courtesy Reuters


Colin H. Kahl

In "The Price of the Surge" (May/June 2008), Steven Simon correctly observes that the Sunni turn against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), known as the Sunni Awakening, has been a key factor in security progress during the period of "the surge." Simon is also on point when he notes that the Awakening, which began before the surge, was not a direct consequence of additional U.S. troops. But although Simon gets much of the past right, he ultimately draws the wrong lessons for U.S. policy moving forward.

Rather than unilaterally and unconditionally withdrawing from Iraq and hoping that the international community will fill the void and push the Iraqis toward accommodation -- a very unlikely scenario -- the United States must embrace a policy of "conditional engagement." This approach would couple a phased redeployment of combat forces with a commitment to providing residual support for the Iraqi government if and only if it moves toward genuine reconciliation. Conditional engagement -- rather than Simon's policy of unconditional disengagement -- would incorporate the real lesson from the Sunni Awakening.

The Awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007. Throughout the war, enemy-of-my-enemy logic has driven Sunni decision-making. The Sunnis have seen three "occupiers" as threats: the United States, the Shiites (and their presumed Iranian patrons), and the foreigners and extremists in AQI. Crucial to the Awakening was the reordering of these threats.

When U.S. forces first arrived in Anbar, upending the Sunni-dominated social order, they were viewed as the principal threat. Because AQI fought the United States, it was seen by the tribes as a convenient short-term ally, despite deep distrust. This ordering of threats changed in 2005 and 2006. For one thing, U.S. forces became more effective and discriminating in their counterinsurgency activities.

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