U.S. Rep. Tom Allen speaks out against the war - defending our troops

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Edited by Emily Graham

U.S. Representative Tom Allen toured Iraq and came home with insights. In a speech to the World Affairs Council of Maine he described his experiences and what he is doing in Congress to bring our troops home.

Following are Allen’s remarks:

"I want to thank the World Affairs Council for inviting me to speak at this critical moment of decision on our most urgent problem: The War in Iraq.

We face a grim and sobering situation in Iraq. It is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today none of our choices can be described as good. More than 160,000 courageous and capable American forces are in the dangerous position of trying to referee a bloody and intractable religious civil war that has been brewing in one form or another for 1300 years.

The president and his supporters remain committed to continue fighting this war in the hope that more American lives, more maimed American personnel and more billions of American dollars will somehow achieve what nearly 3,800 American military deaths, 25,000 wounded and half a trillion dollars have failed to achieve in the last four and a half years.

A majority of Americans long ago concluded that this war was a mistake in the beginning, it has inspired more enemies determined to do us harm, it cannot be won militarily, and it is time to end it. They are desperate for new leadership that won’t just keep rearranging the deck chairs but will grab the wheel and steer us clear of the disaster lying ahead on the current course. That is why I am convinced that we need more than a change in mission for fighting the war in Iraq.

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We need a change in policy that ends the war, compels the Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own security and their own future and allows us to focus on the greatest threat to our nation’s security: al Qaeda and others promoting global Islamic terrorism.

To make this change in course, we need two things. We need a Congress that instead of compromising over how to fight the war will provide the leadership that forces this president to change policy by adopting a statutory deadline to end the war. We need to reset our military forces and develop a new regional strategy that engages Iraq’s neighbors and our allies to create a security framework that gives all the countries of the region a stake in stability, both within Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

My conclusions are based on living with this tragedy for five years, on my observations and conversations during my recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the recent reports on the president’s surge strategy, and the hearings this week in both the House and the Senate.

I visited Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the first week of August as a member of a bipartisan congressional delegation. It was my first trip to Iraq and my second to Afghanistan. The trip gave us opportunities to listen to the soldiers, discuss the situation with commanders and assess firsthand the state of affairs in Iraq and the region.

We flew into Baghdad on Black Hawk helicopters, wearing helmets and flak jackets for our protection. In Baghdad and Kabul, we traveled in armored SUVs with the same protective equipment. That speaks volumes about the security situation.

Our delegation met with General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, several Iraqi politicians, and some American troops. General Petraeus told me that "the U.S. can change its policy in Iraq, but my job is to react to conditions here on the ground." In other words, General Petraeus understood that he is not the commander-in-chief. He was clear that his responsibility was military strategy and tactics. He conceded that policy makers in Washington must set overall policy in the region.

I anticipated, as we have seen, that some politicians and pundits would portray his report as confirmation of the president’s overall policy, rather than a status report on a limited set of political and military benchmarks.

General Petraeus told me that the Army and Marines cannot sustain a force of 160,000 troops in Iraq without lengthening tours of duty again. He admitted that the cycle of troop rotations, on its own, without a change in policy, will reduce the size of the force in Iraq. Most importantly, the general told me that an American troop presence would be required in Iraq in some form for another nine to ten years.

Nine to ten more years of Americans at war in Iraq is unacceptable to me and to the American people. We cannot wait 9 or 10 years to reset our armed forces and address national security challenges put on hold by this misadventure in Iraq. There are two fundamentally different approaches that policy makers can take concerning Iraq.

We can choose to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, either under the current mission or under a "changed" mission. This strategy presumes that U.S. military operations are essential to a political solution. Under this approach, conditions on the ground will determine the departure of American personnel.

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Or we can choose to remove troops from Iraq and bring them home or redeploy them elsewhere. This strategy presumes that U.S. military operations can no longer determine the fundamental dynamics on the ground in Iraq. Under this approach, the departure of U.S. forces would not depend on conditions on the ground.

Advocates of the "Stay-in-Iraq" approach argue that withdrawing U.S. troops is more dangerous than keeping them in the middle of the Iraqi civil war. This is the argument made by President Bush and his supporters.

Advocates for leaving Iraq believe that failing to withdraw troops will, in the long run, be even more dangerous for us than keeping them there. This is what I believe, along with many other Democrats in Congress and some Republicans, including Senator Olympia Snowe.

The central premise of the president’s Iraq policy since 2004 has been that a reduction in violence would lead to political reconciliation. His surge strategy was designed for American Armed Forces to provide increased security to give the Iraqi political leaders what President Bush in January called "breathing space" to promote reconciliation. In his House testimony on Monday, General Petraeus asserted that the surge has reduced violence in Baghdad, although other reports and experts dispute those conclusions. By the Administration’s own criteria, the surge has not worked. It has not led to political reconciliation.

During my visit to Iraq, the deputy prime minister, Dr. Barham Salih, told me that "we will not resolve our political differences by this September or even next September." I found a remarkable lack of political progress by the Iraqi government, despite the urgent demands of the U.S. government. But don’t just take my word for it.

In July, the president’s nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, testified that "there does not appear to be much political progress."

Last month’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq found that "Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled" and that there is "widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status."

The new report on Iraqi security forces by a panel headed by former Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones found that the national police force is so rife with corruption and infiltrated by militia forces that it should be disbanded. Gen. Jones acknowledged that the grim political situation was hampering military efforts.

The seriousness of the current Iraqi leadership is also in question. My colleague, Rep. Jim Moran from Virginia, reported that during a meeting last month in Baghdad with Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, his congressional delegation had difficulty keeping Rubaie’s attention because he was distracted by a children’s cartoon on a television. When Congressman Moran asked him to turn it off, Rubaie responded, "But this is my favorite television show."

General Petraeus told Congress that he could not project whether there would be any troop reductions after next summer and promised to report back to Congress in six months. But General Petraeus gave no rationale for why the administration’s strategy will work in the future.

I doubt it ever will, because the current U.S. force is too small to control the violence throughout the whole country, and sectarian loyalties divide the Iraqi security forces, rendering their loyalty to the government questionable. In fact, the Jones report called for disbanding of the Iraqi national police because it had become so infiltrated by Shi’ite militias.

The administration’s strategy is a kick-the-can-down-the-road policy, designed to hand the problem of having some 130,000 troops in Iraq to President Bush’s successor.

Because of the mismanagement and poor judgment of administration policy makers and their supporters in Washington, we are no longer able to influence events within Iraq in a positive direction. At best, our influence operates on the margin of changes in the country. By following the Stay-in-Iraq strategy, we will still have 130,000 American troops a year from now. This is unacceptable and is not in our national security interest. I believe it is more dangerous to keep U.S. troops in Iraq than to withdraw troops from Iraq and redeploy them to fight the real threat of terrorism.

Drawing down our forces in Iraq will probably be accompanied by increased violence, at least for some time. But our choices today are not good, better, best. They all are problematic, including staying the course indefinitely.

The central question that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tried to answer was, "is the surge working?" I believe this is the wrong question.

I believe the more relevant question is, "is a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq in the national security interest of the United States?" We need a dramatic change not just in our Iraq policy, but an entirely new, strategic approach in the Middle East.

The repeated deployments in Iraq have strained the U.S. military. We need to reset our armed forces to have them rested and ready for future threats. Instead of refereeing a civil war in Iraq, our troops should be concentrating on the real threat to our nation’s security by rooting out and eliminating militant Islamic terrorism.

We need a regional security policy under a multinational process that involves Iraq and all of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and yes, even Iran and Syria. It should include a multilateral conference on political reconciliation, much like the one for the Bosnian peace accords, and a plan to solicit donations from Iraq’s oil-rich neighbors to help with Iraq’s reconstruction. But our preoccupation with Iraq has limited our attention and compromised our position as an honest broker of a lasting peace.

And then there is Al Qaeda, which the intelligence community recently found has become resurgent in its home base in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Osama bin Laden’s reemergence this week reminds us that six years after 9/11 he remains free and able to recruit new terrorists by building on the resentment of our involvement in Iraq. These initiatives will be compromised as long as we have U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq.

Just as our presence has created a culture of dependency on the part of the stalemated Iraqi government, it has also created stagnation within the region, by providing an excuse for Iraq’s neighbors not to take responsibility for regional security. As long as we remain in Iraq, they know stability is our problem. Once we announce we are leaving, we gain diplomatic leverage with countries that have a self-interest in stability within Iraq. Congress must lead the way out of Iraq.

No amount of recommendations by blue ribbon panels, cajoling by elder statesmen, or nonbinding statements from Congress will move this intransigent president from his position. We simply can’t trust that he will do the right thing, when he is committed to policies that have proven to be disastrous for the nation. The only realistic way to overcome the president’s resistance is for Congress to set a firm, binding deadline to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Nothing but the force of law will compel the president to comply.

I have voted repeatedly for a binding timeline to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and I will continue to fight for this until we succeed. Real deadlines work.

As you know, I am now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Susan Collins and I have served together in Congress for nearly 11 years. She and I both grew up here in Maine, we both deeply love our state and our nation, and we both work hard on behalf of our constituents here in Maine. But elections are about choices and choices have consequences. Susan and I have faced the same choices on the Iraq War. She has voted consistently to support the president’s policies. I have voted consistently to change the president’s policies. She now advocates a plan to "change the mission" for fighting the war that could keep 100,000 Americans in Iraq indefinitely.

I opposed this war from the outset. I voted against it in 2002 and predicted, correctly as it turns out, that it would create more resentment and hatred of America in the Islamic world and make us less, not more secure. For two years, I have advocated for a deadline to end the war and put the Iraqis on notice that they must resolve their differences and take charge of their own security because we are leaving.

The young service men and women from Maine I met at Combat Outpost X-Ray in Iraq, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and other locations in both countries make us all proud. They are talented, dedicated, and show more courage than I can possibly convey. They have done everything they’ve been asked to do, and it has been a job well done. They were sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, and they did it swiftly and decisively.

Because of bad judgment, inept management, and disastrous decisions by the president and past Congresses, our troops are now caught in the middle of a sectarian conflict with no end in sight. The people of Maine and America don’t want another compromise on how to fight the war. They want leadership to end it. They want leadership to plot a new course in Iraq and throughout the region as the best chance to bring some stability to that war-torn area. And they want leadership to redirect our attention to real threat to our national security, militant Islamic terrorism.

The war in Iraq poisons every aspect of our foreign policy and undermines our important domestic priorities. We can wait no longer for success from a policy that the president conceived erroneously, conducted ineptly, and stubbornly refuses to change. We must change direction to protect the future safety and prosperity of the American people.