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No U.S. Backup Strategy For Iraq

Sgt. John Guerra, 21, and his platoon from the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team patrol a Baghdad neighborhood as part of an effort to improve security.
Sgt. John Guerra, 21, and his platoon from the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team patrol a Baghdad neighborhood as part of an effort to improve security. (By Maya Alleruzzo -- Associated Press)

Other senior military officials are skeptical of containment, fearing that it would be almost impossible to achieve and that a policy of standing back and letting Iraqis kill each other would be morally indefensible and a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Even proponents of containment warn that it would leave U.S. troops as concentrated targets while limiting their ability to control the situation militarily.

A related option would involve redeploying U.S. forces to the relative safety of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, to more peaceful areas in the south and to Anbar in the west, where they could focus on fighting al-Qaeda. "You can have your civil war without us," columnist Charles Krauthammer recently suggested that Bush tell Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We will be around to pick up the pieces as best we can."

Biddle, who noted that new Iraq strategy proposals "proliferate hourly" in the public domain, said another variant is to set up "heavily defended forward operating bases out in the desert somewhere [and] either sit there and mind our own business and do nothing except be present -- enabling us to say we're still there -- or, in a somewhat more activist flavor, to conduct raids of various kinds" against al-Qaeda bases and rescue missions for Iraqi military units.

Steven N. Simon, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the NSC's director for national security threats during the Clinton administration, last month proposed U.S. disengagement from Iraq itself, calling for containment from the outside with a reinforced U.S. presence elsewhere in the region and the opening of a regional diplomatic dialogue. Those steps should be initiated immediately, Simon wrote, before the costs of the war begin to widen across the Middle East and beyond.

Still other withdrawal possibilities center on the replacement of conventional troops with a significant Special Forces contingent to engage in counterterrorism, along with what Biddle called "facilitating ethnic cleansing" by providing armed escorts for Iraqis who want to leave contested areas.

Any containment option is likely to add substantially to the nearly 4 million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan and Syria or have been displaced from their homes within Iraq, said Carlos Pascual of the Brookings Institution, who served as director of the State Department's Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization until October 2005. Humanitarian agencies are already drawing up plans for huge refugee camps inside and around Iraq's borders, although many are concerned they will only add to the country's problems.

"When refugees and displaced persons start collecting in camps," Pascual said, "you get a vulnerable population -- and a lot of unemployed men -- who are subject to attack, recruitment and internal violence. This is where you often get further radicalization, and the camps themselves become a source of the problem."

Over the years of U.S. involvement in Iraq, new plans have been launched with assurances of success -- the return of sovereignty to a handpicked Iraqi administration in the summer of 2004; a democratically elected government in January 2005; "Plan Baghdad," designed to retake the capital from insurgents and militias, in the summer of 2006. The current Plan A is arguably already Plan D or beyond.

Since last summer, public opinion has turned against Bush's handling of the war and favors withdrawing, rather than increasing, troops. Although the administration has said the new strategy should show progress within months, many officials privately say it could be years, if ever, and the Democratic majority in Congress has shown little inclination to wait patiently.

Any substantive administration planning for other contingencies is occurring at the margins of policy, far from key decision-makers. "Planners plan, but I don't think anyone is saying, 'Let's do the partition,' or 'Let's pull back and let Baghdad burn,' " one Pentagon official said. "That would be a tectonic shift. That would be catastrophic failure."

One military officer and another defense expert said they believe that retired Army Col. James Kurtz, a specialist in strategic planning, has been asked by the Pentagon to begin studying alternative strategies at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-run think tank. "It's just not appropriate to ask for that," Kurtz said in response to an inquiry. "We keep what we do with our sponsors, okay?"

Bush has warned that the U.S. commitment to Iraq is not open-ended and will require increased effort from Iraqis. Pressed to specify U.S. limits, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there would be ample opportunity "to see whether or not in fact the Iraqis are living up to the assurances they gave us."

"And what if they don't?" Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) asked.

"I don't think you go to Plan B," Rice replied. "You work with Plan A."


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