By Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 14, 2006
The nation's top uniformed leaders are recommending that the United States change its main military mission in Iraq from combating insurgents to supporting Iraqi troops and hunting terrorists, said sources familiar with the White House's ongoing Iraq policy review.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney met with the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday at the Pentagon for more than an hour, and the president engaged his top military advisers on different options. The chiefs made no dramatic proposals but, at a time of intensifying national debate about how to solve the Iraq crisis, offered a pragmatic assessment of what can and cannot be done by the military, the sources said.
The chiefs do not favor adding significant numbers of troops to Iraq, said sources familiar with their thinking, but see strengthening the Iraqi army as pivotal to achieving some degree of stability. They also are pressing for a much greater U.S. effort on economic reconstruction and political reconciliation.
Sources said that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is reviewing a plan to redefine the American military mission there: U.S. troops would be pulled out of Iraqi cities and consolidated at a handful of U.S. bases while day-to-day combat duty would be turned over to the Iraqi army. Casey is still considering whether to request more troops, possibly as part of an expanded training mission to help strengthen the Iraqi army.
The recommendations Casey is reviewing to overhaul the military mission were formulated by Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the outgoing top U.S. ground commander, officials said. The plan positions the U.S. military to be able to move swiftly to a new focus on training, one of the key recommendations from several reviews of U.S. strategy, including from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Under the plan developed by Chiarelli's staff, the military would shift about half of its 15 combat brigades away from battling insurgents and sectarian violence and into training Iraqi security forces as soon as the spring of 2007, military and defense officials said. In northern and western Iraq, U.S. commanders are already moving troops out of combat missions to place them as advisers with lower-level Iraqi army units, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for the military in Iraq, said yesterday at a briefing in Baghdad.
Administration officials stressed that Bush, under pressure from Congress and the electorate to abandon the United States' open-ended commitment, has made no final decisions on how to proceed in Iraq. But the new disclosures suggest that military planning is well underway for a major change from an approach that has assigned the bulk of responsibility for security in Iraq to more than 140,000 U.S. troops.
The chiefs also want to see a new push on political and economic issues, especially employment programs, reconstruction and political reconciliation, to help quell the problems that have fueled both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite-Sunni sectarian strife, say defense officials and U.S. military officers in Iraq. A new jobs program is considered key to pulling young men from the burgeoning militias.
Pentagon chiefs think that there is no purely military solution for Iraq and that, without major progress on the political and economic fronts, the U.S. intervention is simply buying time, the sources said. They particularly want to see U.S. pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to offer amnesty to Sunni insurgents, approve constitutional amendments promised to the Sunni minority, pass laws to ensure equitable distribution of oil revenue, and modify the ban on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party taking government positions.
Bush alluded to this proposition when he met briefly with reporters after his meeting at the Pentagon. "Our military cannot do this job alone," he said. "Our military needs a political strategy that is effective."
But Bush also showed no sign that he is retreating from his basic proposition that the U.S. military must be engaged in Iraq for some time. "If we lose our nerve, if we're not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm," he said, adding that he would not be "rushed" into a decision.
Bush has been intensely involved with reviewing his options on Iraq this week, meeting on Monday with officials at the State Department and talking by videoconference on Tuesday with his commanders in Iraq. One senior administration official said last night that the situation is "fluid" and described Bush as especially mindful of the need to integrate military and political strategies.
But as the sources described yesterday, the military planning in both Washington and Baghdad is far along, in some ways tracking the ideas presented last week by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former U.S. representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), for instance in the emphasis on reshaping the U.S. military mission to focus on training and advising.
Thousands of U.S. combat troops in Iraq would become embedded advisers with Iraqi security forces. About 4,000 U.S. troops are now serving on 11-person military training teams embedded with Iraqi forces. The new plan would add 30 troops to each team, allowing them to provide supervision and mentoring down to the level of Iraqi army companies -- a step seen as critical to bolstering Iraqi units and preventing sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, the remaining seven to eight brigades of U.S. combat forces would focus on three core missions: striking al-Qaeda, strengthening security along Iraq's borders, and protecting major highways and other routes to ensure U.S. forces freedom of movement in Iraq.
The plan would not allow for any major reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq over the next year -- nor would it call for any surge in troops, as some, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have advocated.
The Pentagon chiefs also are urging that any new strategy be sensitive to regional context, particularly the impact of political or military decisions. They are concerned that any decision to effectively throw U.S. support to the Shiite majority may lead Sunni governments in the region to take a more active role in supporting Sunni insurgents. But they are also concerned that a crackdown on Iraq's largest Shiite militia, the Mahdi army, may have repercussions on Iran's actions in Iraq, say officials familiar with the ongoing review.
A constant subtext in the meeting yesterday, and in the ongoing White House review, is the Joint Chiefs' growing concern about the erosion of the U.S. military's ability to deal with other crises around the world because of the heavy commitment in Iraq and the stress on troops and equipment, said officials familiar with the review. The chiefs planned to tell Bush of the significantly increased risk to readiness in the event of a new emergency, rather than push for a timeline to leave Iraq.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, Thomas E. Ricks and Josh White contributed to this report.