By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006
The Pentagon's closely guarded review of how to improve the situation in Iraq has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops, shrink the force but stay longer, or pull out, according to senior defense officials.
Insiders have dubbed the options "Go Big," "Go Long" and "Go Home." The group conducting the review is likely to recommend a combination of a small, short-term increase in U.S. troops and a long-term commitment to stepped-up training and advising of Iraqi forces, the officials said.
The military's study, commissioned by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, comes at a time when escalating violence is causing Iraq policy to be reconsidered by both the White House and the congressionally chartered, bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Pace's effort will feed into the White House review, but military officials have made it clear they are operating independently.
The Pentagon group's proceedings are so secret that officials asked to help it have not even been told its title or mandate. But in recent days the circle of those with knowledge of its deliberations has widened beyond a narrow group working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Go Big," the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. A classic counterinsurgency campaign, though, would require several hundred thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as heavily armed Iraqi police. That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military and not enough effective Iraqi forces, said sources who have been informally briefed on the review.
The sources insisted on anonymity because no one at the Pentagon has been permitted to discuss the review with outsiders. The review group is led by three high-profile colonels -- H.R. McMaster and Peter Mansoor of the Army, and Thomas C. Greenwood of the Marine Corps. None of them would comment for this article.
Spokesmen for the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs did not respond to calls or e-mails seeking comment.
"Go Home," the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.
The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one -- "Go Long" -- and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.
The purpose of the temporary but notable increase, they said, would be twofold: To do as much as possible to curtail sectarian violence, and also to signal to the Iraqi government and public that the shift to a "Go Long" option that aims to eventually cut the U.S. presence is not a disguised form of withdrawal.
Even so, there is concern that such a radical shift in the U.S. posture in Iraq could further damage the standing of its government, which U.S. officials worry is already shaky. Under the hybrid plan, the short increase in U.S. troop levels would be followed by a long-term plan to radically cut the presence, perhaps to 60,000 troops.
That combination plan, which one defense official called "Go Big but Short While Transitioning to Go Long," could backfire if Iraqis suspect it is really a way for the United States to moonwalk out of Iraq -- that is, to imitate singer Michael Jackson's trademark move of appearing to move forward while actually sliding backward. "If we commit to that concept, we have to accept upfront that it might result in the opposite of what we want," the official said.
The Pentagon official said this short-term boost could be achieved through three steps: extending the tours of duty of some units already in Iraq, sending other units there earlier than planned and activating some Army Reserve units.
The group concluded that such a step might be necessary because it is concerned that the continuing violence is undercutting the Iraqi government's credibility. "Folks increasingly realize that if violence can't be contained, the spiral downward will continue, the national government will lose the effectiveness it has . . . . and then all bets will be off," the official said.
Also, it would take months to prepare and implement the expansion of the program to train and advise Iraqi forces, he noted. The military would have to find those additional advisers, prepare them for the deployment, get infrastructure in place to house and feed them, order and ship equipment for them to use, and recruit additional Iraqis for them to train.
"The 'Go Long' approach is one that can work if there is sufficient strategic patience, resources appropriated and [if] leadership executes effectively," a military intelligence official said.
Another potential obstacle to the "Go Long" option is that it runs counter to the impulse of many congressional Democrats to find a way to get out of Iraq quickly. Planners envision taking five to 10 more years to create a stable and competent Iraqi army. Because it wouldn't lead to a swift exit, some Democrats could criticize this option as a disguised version of "staying the course."
On the other hand, the hybrid version of "Go Long" may be remarkably close to the recommendation that the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). That group's findings, expected to be issued next month, are said to focus on changing the emphasis of U.S. military operations from combating the insurgency to training Iraqis, and also to find ways to increase security in Baghdad and bring neighboring countries into talks about stabilizing Iraq.
The Pentagon group has given a thumbs-down to what it considered variants of withdrawal, such as pulling U.S. units out of the cities and keeping them in isolated enclaves, where they would not interact with the Iraqi population but would be available to combat major insurgent offensives and also to protect the government against coups.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. military commander for the Middle East, expressed a similar view last week when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thinks that immediate troop withdrawals would increase the violence in Iraq.