The sight of millions of Iraqis braving violence to exercise their right to vote in an election that could be a milestone in the region provided a much-needed dose of cheer to a post-invasion period that has been fraught with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. It was a sight that gave many Americans--even those who opposed the war--cause for optimism. But it was not enough to dissuade Senator Ted Kennedy from his belief, laid out last week, that American troops ought to begin immediately pulling out of Iraq. "The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem," the senior senator from Massachusetts instructed a Washington audience, "not part of the solution." Seconding this appraisal, 25 Democrats quickly introduced a bill in the House of Representatives calling for an immediate pullout. 

The strategic rationale for a U.S. withdrawal is simple: Because American troops have become "part of the problem," their removal will improve Iraq's security situation. But, while the presence of American troops may inflame the insurgency, it does not follow that our departure would pacify the militants, who increasingly have Iraqis, not Americans, in their sights. After all, the shootings and car bombs that plague everyday life in Iraq have mostly been aimed at (and exacted their steepest toll from) innocent Iraqis--politicians, civic activists, ordinary citizens, Christians, Shia--not U.S. forces. They clearly will continue to do so regardless of the U.S. presence.

Our first bequest to the still-forming Iraqi government must not be chaos. For an exit strategy to work, it must take into account the fact that Iraqi security forces cannot yet battle the insurgency on their own, and that Iraqi soldiers have backed down from several major battles with militants. It must address the prospect that a civil war could very well ensue in the aftermath of a premature U.S. departure. It must explain how to mitigate the dangers the newly elected parliament could face absent the protection of U.S. forces.

Iraq's security forces, after all, are nowhere near the Pentagon's goal of 135,000 Iraqi police, 62,000 national guardsmen, and 24,000 soldiers. The insurgency is far from vanquished. And, while U.S. aims in Iraq may have been reduced since the invasion, they have not disappeared altogether. It may be too late to create a truly liberal Iraq, but it is not too late to prevent Iraq from coming apart at the seams. That means preventing Iraq from becoming a power vacuum filled by terrorist organizations, which is what a recent National Intelligence Council report suggested Iraq is fast becoming. Only an Iraqi government with the ability to secure Iraq's provinces can prevent this outcome. And only the United States military can fill the gap in the meantime.

Of course, if the sovereign Iraqi government asks for an immediate U.S. withdrawal, the White House should agree; Americans must not remain against the Iraqis' will. But there are few signs the Iraqi leadership will make such a request. This week, Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Al Yawar, told reporters that it would be "complete nonsense" to ask American troops to leave now; and even the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia candidates' slate endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, has dropped the demand for withdrawal from its platform. One Alliance politician, Mowaffaq Al Rubaie, called the prospect "a recipe for disaster." Another, Ibrahim Jaafari, has said, "If the United States pulls out too fast, there would be chaos."

When Iraqi forces have been trained and deployed in sufficient numbers, the United States should pack up and come home. That training process should be expedited and expanded to the greatest extent possible, assigning American officers direct contacts in the Iraqi forces in order to build leadership, with the goal of having Iraqi forces at the head of combat missions by this spring. But our departure may not arrive for several years--perhaps at a cost of thousands more U.S. casualties in Iraq and substantial discord here at home.

Yet there is no other way. Critics of the decision to go to war would do well to recall that we are no longer debating the merits of invading Iraq. We are debating the merits of quitting Iraq. Having turned that country inside out, and having unleashed centrifugal forces that Iraqis by themselves do not have the means to subdue, a premature withdrawal from Iraq would not right the wrongs of the past. It would only exacerbate the problems of the present.

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.