A bipartisan way out of Iraq

Ending this war is necessary. But how we end it is of even greater importance for both our security and our troops' safety.

There is a bipartisan "way ahead" in Iraq if viewed in terms of progress for America's security and not solely Iraq's, with a strategy that focuses on our national interests in this conflict, not just the interests of Iraqis.

Our troops have served our country courageously and brilliantly, but our engagement in Iraq has degraded our security, pushing our Army to the breaking point so that it cannot confront other pressing security concerns at home and abroad.

My military service as a three-star vice admiral – having led an aircraft carrier battle group in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and served as director of the Navy's anti-terrorism unit – convinces me that an inconclusive, open-ended involvement in Iraq is not in our security interests. Ending this war is necessary. But how we end it is of even greater importance for both our security and our troops' safety. These two considerations are the dual catalysts for a bipartisan discussion on this issue.

First, America's security: our Army will rapidly unravel if redeployment from Iraq does not begin before spring 2008. Today, 40 percent of all US Army equipment is in Iraq; there is no Army unit now at home in a state of readiness able to deploy anywhere another contingency might occur in the world.

Second, the safety of our troops: redeployment from Iraq will be lengthy. Moving 160,000 troops and 50,000 civilian contractors and closing bases are logistically challenging, especially in conflict. To ensure our troops' safety, it will take at least a year – probably 15 to 24 months.

The "long pole in the tent" is the closure or turnover of 65 Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Conservatively, it takes 100 days to close one FOB. It will be important to balance how many to close at one time with calculations about surrounding strife. Kuwait's receiving facilities to clean and package vehicles for customs and shipment back to the United States can handle only 2 to 2½ brigade combat teams (BCTs) at a time, and that there are currently 40 BCT-equivalents in Iraq.

Redeployment is the most vulnerable of military operations, particularly because this one will be down a single road, leading from Iraq to Kuwait – "Road Tampa." Such vulnerability is why, in 1993, after "Blackhawk Down" in Somalia, it took six months to extract our 6,300 troops safely, and only then after inserting another 19,000 to protect their redeployment.

And what of Iraqi stability in the aftermath of our redeployment, which affects the region and thus our security? Because a redeployment of troops will take a long time, we can have a bipartisan approach to Iraq's security. To do this, the Democratic leadership must turn from pure opposition to this war and an immediate withdrawal, and begin to help author a comprehensive regional security plan that accepts the necessity of a deliberate redeployment. In turn, the Republican leadership must accept that the US government must also work diplomatically with Iran and Syria during this deliberate redeployment. While these two countries are currently involved destructively in this war, according to our intelligence community, these nations want stability in Iraq after our departure and, therefore, can play a constructive role.

I have consistently argued that a planned end to our military engagement in Iraq is necessary, and that such a "date certain" deadline will force Iraqi leaders to assume responsibility, providing Iran and Syria the incentive to prevent violence otherwise caused by our departure.

Our troops could either return home or deploy to areas (such as Afghanistan) where terrorists pose a threat to our security, while others remain at our existing bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and on aircraft carrier and amphibious groups, to ensure our interests in the region (as we did prior to invading Iraq).

Because our Army must either start a lengthy redeployment or risk unraveling, we have the catalysts for a bipartisan agreement to end this war with a stable Iraq, if we also work with Iran and Syria to meet this goal. However, this opportunity for a bipartisan congressional approach – to convince the president to use diplomacy to bring about a stable accommodation in Iraq once our troops redeploy – will undoubtedly require an initial redeployment deadline that is a "goal" instead of a "date certain."

Therefore, despite my continuing belief that a "date certain" is the best leverage to change Iraqis' and regional nations' behavior, when faced with the otherwise assured consequences of a partisan stalemate on resolving the tragic misadventure in Iraq, this compromise is needed for America's security.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania is a former three-star vice admiral who commanded aircraft carrier battle groups in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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