In addition to those tactical concerns, some of the chiefs also expressed misgivings about the wisdom of dislodging an aging, weakened Hussein who, by some accounts, has behaved better than usual in recent months. Their worry is that there is no evidence that there is a clear successor who is any better, and that there are significant risks that Iraq may wind up with a more hostile, activist regime.
As the discussions of Iraq policy were culminating earlier this month, Franks briefed the Joint Chiefs and then the president on the outline of the plan he would use if ordered to attack. His plan, which was the only one presented, called for a substantial combat force that was close to half the 541,000 troops deployed for the 1991 Gulf War, which the military refers to as Operation Desert Storm. Some at the Pentagon promptly labeled the Franks plan Desert Storm Lite.
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When asked at a news conference in Tampa earlier this week about what military force be needed to invade Iraq, Franks answered, "That's a great question and one for which I don't have an answer because my boss has not yet asked me to put together a plan to do that."
Franks's narrow response relied on the U.S. military definition of "plan" as a detailed, step-by-step blueprint for military operations. What Franks discussed with the Joint Chiefs and the president was a simpler outline for an attack that the military terms a "concept of operations."
By emphasizing the large force that he believes would be needed, Franks's briefings also seemed to rule out an alternate plan that some civilians in the Bush administration had advocated. Dubbed "the Downing plan," for retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who suggested it four years ago, this approach calls for conquering Iraq with combination of airstrikes and Special Operations attacks in coordination with indigenous fighters.
That option, which would have required a fraction of the U.S. troops Franks indicated he would need, was not presented as a briefing either to the Joint Chiefs or to the president, officials said. Downing serves as the White House's coordinator for counterterrorism efforts.
This spring, "the civilian leadership thought they could do this à la Afghanistan, with Special Forces," said a senior officer. "I think they've been dissuaded of that."
The point of the Franks briefings, this general said, was that, "We don't need as much as Desert Storm, but we need a large competent ground force, in order to shape the other force. What forces the other guy to mass is the presence of another ground force. Then you can deal with that force with fires and air power." In this view, those who say the model of the Afghan war can be transferred to Iraq fail to take into account that the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan had thousands of troops ready to fight, some of them heavily armed, whereas there is no equivalent indigenous force in Iraq.
Despite the confidence expressed by some officers that an attack on Iraq has been postponed and may never occur, some on the other side of the argument warn that it is far from concluded. There are other top officers in the U.S. military who disagree with the chiefs' assessment. Their worries, said one general, "smack to me of risk aversion." He added: "The fact is they [the Iraqi armed forces] are one-third the size they used to be. Their air force isn't there."
Advocates of an Iraqi invasion note that Bush has not backed away from his tough State of the Union rhetoric. "They [the military leaders] have been able to defer it, so they've won this round of the bureaucratic battle," said one Republican foreign policy expert who is hawkish on Iraq. But, he continued, "I don't believe you're going to see the president sit back and say, 'Sure, containment's the way to go, keeping him in the box is working.' "