Al-Anbar, the largest of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, was once thought of as a lost cause. A 2006 US Marine Corps report stated that the situation in the region was deteriorating by the day. The Sunni population of Anbar – dominant under Saddam – was fearful of growing Iranian influence in Baghdad, and increasingly turned to Sunni extremists for support. The report concluded that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had become an “integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq.” Coalition deaths in Anbar since the invasion were second only to Baghdad.


The local population, however, became disillusioned with the insurgents’ indiscriminate bombings and extremists’ attempts to impose Shari’a law, which included a ban on smoking – anathema to tobacco-loving Iraqis. In an effort to wrest influence from AQI, the local tribal leaders struck a deal which saw them cooperate with the US on improving stability in exchange for arms and training, and a promise that American forces would hand over control to local authorities.  On 1 September 2008 Anbar became the eleventh province to be returned to provincial Iraqi control.

The success of this transformation and other so-called “awakenings” supports the case for a phased withdrawal from Iraq and the establishment of a definitive deadline for our combat troops to be pulled out.

The newly appointed US military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, faces a difficult task, inheriting what Secretary Gates has called a “mission in transition,” as American forces begin to drop to pre-surge levels. It is a measure of the success of General David Petraeus’s efforts in Iraq that we can realistically talk of a phased withdrawal rather than the hasty cut-and-run proposals that proliferated during the worst months of sectarian violence in late 2006. Concurrent with Petraeus’s success came a change in attitude among local tribal leaders previously spurned – foolishly – by Paul Bremer as being “part of the past.” Instead they now appear to hold the key to securing a stable future for Iraq. Recognizing in the 2006 congressional elections that a Democrat-controlled Congress would precipitate the end of the US occupation in Iraq, Sunni tribal leaders set about making contingencies for a future without their Coalition suzerains. Sunni insurgents who once fought the Americans now challenge al-Qaeda as part of the Sons of Iraq, a tribal militia whose members number 100,000 across the country. And although their integration into the official security services has been slow, the burden they have shouldered has eased pressure on Coalition troops. True, there is still work to be done, and Wednesday’s car bomb attacks in Baghdad attest to Odierno’s appraisal that gains are “fragile and reversible,” but violence in Iraq has dropped off to a four-year low and a phased withdrawal from Iraq by the end of next year appears, in Petraeus’s words, “doable.”

There are three main reasons why a deadline must be set.

First, the longer the US spends in Iraq, the fewer resources it can devote to Afghanistan, where Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s government is struggling to control even a third of the country. Added to this is the need to combat increasing instability in Pakistan which has led to the border region of Warizstan becoming a stronghold for militant activity. The opportunity costs incurred can also be seen in Iran where President Ahmadinejad, despite UN resolutions, presses ahead with his country’s secretive nuclear program, safe in the knowledge that US threats cannot be backed up if the military remains overstretched throughout the Persian Gulf.

Second, the cost of the war is expected to surpass $3 trillion once factors such as interest on loans, the cost of rehabilitation for troops, and the rearmament of the military are considered. Funding for the war, as Lawrence J. Korb points out, has been reliant on Chinese loans and if ever a conflict arose over, say, Taiwan, the economic leverage China could yield would be devastating. Having relied on US funding for the last five years it is time the Iraqis assumed fiscal responsibility for their country. The only way this can happen is if they are given a deadline by which time they must have a plan in place. The continued American presence encourages Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki’s cabinet to inaction and procrastination on important issues. With increased oil production it is estimated that Iraq could produce up to $200bn per year in revenue – more than enough to promote growth and encourage investment.

Third, both in Iraq and the US, support for setting a deadline is high. A recent Gallup poll finds that 59% of Americans would want to stick to a deadline regardless of conditions in Iraq. Al-Maliki has called for a timetable to be set and is increasingly self-confident about Iraq’s capacity to function independently. A recent estimate suggests that a massive withdrawal is “perfectly feasible” in an 8 to 10 month period. Furthermore, the general in charge of training the Iraqi Security Forces has stated that, “the Iraqi army and police will be able to assume full responsibility for internal security as early as April 2009.”

Setting a deadline would not, as some critics say, play into the hands of insurgents. Yet a phased withdrawal – even a very succesful one – could never be considered a ‘victory’ for Coalition forces. Problems in Iraq will continue. Equally though, any attempt to portray a pullout as a victory for al-Qaeda would look absurd given the thrashing they suffered during the surge. Nor would a deadline facilitate a power vacuum into which Iranian and Syrian influence would flow. Yes, they have both aided insurgents inside Iraq, but this was a short-term ploy designed to give the Americans a bloody nose. Rather, it is in the long-term interest of both Iran and Syria to maintain a stable and peaceful Iraq. Moreover, Iran understandably worries that the US desire to keep military bases in Iraq is a threat to their national security. Removing this presence would ease their concerns and encourage diplomacy in the region, leading to greater stability throughout the whole Middle East.

Neil Leslie is assistant editor at the Atlantic Council. His views are his own.