Withdraw & Engage: Mapping a Way Forward for U.S.-Iraq Relations, 20 Years After America’s Disastrous Invasion

New report surveys U.S. and Iraqi leaders and experts to craft a strategy for U.S. military withdrawal and renewed diplomatic engagement with Baghdad

CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, [email protected], 202.800.4662

WASHINGTON, DC — Despite the disastrous legacy of America’s military intervention in Iraq, Washington has a responsibility and a productive role to play in helping the Iraqi people to secure stability and peace for their country, according to a new research report released by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft ahead of the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion.

In You Can Go Home Again: A Proposal for Phased Military Withdrawal from Iraq and Normalizing U.S.-Iraq Relations, authors Adam Weinstein and Steven Simon put forward a five-year strategy coupling incremental U.S. military withdrawal with renewed diplomatic engagement; the two draw on their extensive interviews with current and former U.S. officials in the State Department, Pentagon, and White House, senior Iraqi security officials and politicians, community activists, and journalists.

“Our proposed strategy recognizes that temporary combined training exercises, military delegations, and joint planning efforts are useful for shoring up security and stability, and identifies ways to continue this cooperation without an indefinite deployment of troops,” said Steven Simon, former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council and Senior Research Analyst at QI. “U.S. interests in Iraq may compel the continuation of an ‘advise, assist, and enable’ mission in the medium term—but they do not warrant an extended US military presence. Staying the course without developing a clear exit strategy increases the probability of a hastily executed withdrawal in the future.”

With 2,500 U.S.-deployed forces in Iraq today, Weinstein and Simon’s research interrogates two major questions driving current U.S. strategy: Do Iraq’s seemingly intractable problems threaten U.S. interests, even obliquely? Does a continued U.S. presence in Iraq mitigate such a threat, and if so, does this outweigh its costs? 

The brief demonstrates that America does retain a vital interest in regional stability that is best secured by continuing to buttress Iraq’s security in the near term, while simultaneously planning for a phased off-ramp from the current mission. However, U.S. interests do not warrant an indefinite military presence, Simon and Weinstein warn. “Time and time again we have learned that interventions are costly and where temporarily successful solve a near term problem at the expense of longer-term interests because getting out is harder than getting in.”

“The United States cannot substitute for the political legitimacy of the host country’s government, the will of its armed forces to fight, or the national pride required to defeat an insurgency,” Weinstein and Simon write, urging Washington to align its Iraq strategy with long-evident lessons from our nation-building failure there. “A long-term US military deployment cannot address Iraq’s underlying structural deficiencies which will need to be resolved by Iraqis themselves.” 

A time limited withdrawal over five years will be sufficient to allow further incremental gains in Iraqi capabilities — particularly intelligence gathering, targeting, and mission planning — while being far enough out to make “waiting out the clock” on America’s military presence impractical for adversaries, Weinstein and Simon find. 

America must rightsize our approach in Iraq, they write, accepting the limits of the capabilities of U.S. military power to solve Iraq’s woes for a realistic assessment of how we might best advance opportunities to secure stability and security through diplomatic engagement and military advice: “The most the United States can reasonably expect to achieve is an improvement in the technical capabilities and professionalism of a select few elite units, while providing counsel to Iraq’s leaders, primarily through regular contact between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and Prime Minister al–Sudani.”

Simon, a Senior Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute, served as the National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism in the Clinton White House and for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama White House and in senior positions at the U.S. Department of State. 

Weinstein, a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute, focuses on security, trade, and rule of law in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and he has traveled extensively in all three countries. He served as a U.S. Marine and deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as part of a detachment to the 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company where he served in Uruzgan Province in support of Australia’s 2nd Commando Regiment.