Some civilians in the debate worry that military planners consistently call for more troops in every plan because they lack an appreciation of how technological advances have improved the military's offensive capabilities since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "The issue is, our capability to do severe damage to the Iraqis is very different today than it was 10 years ago," said Dennis Bovin, a member of the Defense Science Board and other Pentagon advisory groups. "We have a lot more options available than ever before."
In the debate, civilians have urged military planners to consider approaches radically different from the half-million-strong force that the United States deployed against Iraq during the Gulf War. The current favorite of those backing a smaller, faster approach is a lightning strike involving narrowly focused airstrikes combined with a sprint of armored vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad. The thinking is that such a movement of just a few days would not permit Hussein to hide his forces in cities or to trundle his artillery pieces to the northern bank of the Euphrates and then to fire shells, possibly including chemical weapons, at U.S. forces trying to cross that broad river.
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In addition, several other "bolt from the blue" approaches are being discussed behind closed doors and studied in war games. "There are a lot of out-of-the-box options, very few of which have gotten into the public eye," said one Pentagon consultant. The Special Operations Command in particular has suggested some "tactically innovative" approaches that combine "precision strike and information dominance," said a Pentagon official.
Yet no matter how innovative the suggestions, the planners at Central Command seem to weigh them down with conventional thinking that would prolong both the preparations for any attack and the war itself, according to people involved in the process. That command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, is headed by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who has a reputation in the Pentagon of being extremely cautious.
"They've had these ideas for months, but they keep on going back to Franks with them, and he says, 'No, no, you need three heavy divisions and an air assault division' " -- that is, a backup force of about 60,000 troops -- as insurance in case a smaller attack falters, one defense official said. The overall force considered in one plan earlier this summer would have involved around 100,000 troops, he said.
In follow-up meetings, pointed questioning by senior civilian officials cut the overall number of the notional attack force to 68,000, the official added. Then, he said, "two weeks later, the Army has pushed it back up to 120,000."
The apparent impasse is causing extreme frustration with Franks and with the Army among some administration officials.
At a July 10 meeting of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, one of the subjects discussed was how to overcome the military reluctance to plan innovatively for an attack on Iraq. "What was discussed was the problem with the services," said one defense expert who participated in the meeting. His conclusion: "You have to have a few heads roll, especially in the Army."
People involved in the planning said the reason so many different plans and variations have surfaced -- from a "Gulf War Lite" force involving 250,000 troops to an "Afghan War Redux" that combines a relative handful of Special Forces units, airstrikes and Iraqi rebels -- is that wildly different assumptions are being made about the nature of the war.
"There's obviously a lot going on about how to do this," said one senior administration official. "There's no right way or wrong way. It's difficult because you don't know which countries you can count on or what the consequences in the region would be."
The first major variable is the geopolitical context in which the attack would occur. Some military planners believe that the U.S. military ultimately would be able to use bases in nearly every country in the area, except Iran and Syria. Others predict that the United States would be far more constrained.
The second area has to do with the degree of military risk. There are major disagreements, officials said, especially about whether the Iraqi military as a whole would fight or just the Republican Guard, Hussein's most elite and loyal force.
Some of those advocating a smaller, faster attack think that it would be a mistake to target the entire Iraqi military, which they believe has elements that would either decline to fight or even join the U.S. side. "If the Republican Guards are the only viable fighting force, and the regular Iraqi army won't perform, you could really do a lot of the necessary damage from the air," said a Pentagon adviser involved in the discussions.
Finally, there is an extraordinary range of opinion about what burden the U.S. military and government would be required to carry in Iraq after a victory. How long would U.S. troops have to stay, how many would be needed and whether they would be joined by peacekeepers from other countries are all being debated. Most important, perhaps, is the question of whether the Iraqi people would welcome the arrival of U.S. forces -- or oppose it.
All those calculations are complicated by the fact that the nature of the war -- its scope, duration and intensity -- will help shape the mood of postwar Iraq.
"Downing's opposition was to a long, destructive campaign from the ground and air that would hurt the post-campaign environment," said one military planner, referring to retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who recently left a White House position, some say because of his unhappiness with the planning for Iraq.