No U.S. Backup Strategy For Iraq
Outside Experts, Not White House, Discuss Options

By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 5, 2007

During a White House meeting last week, a group of governors asked President Bush and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about their backup plan for Iraq. What would the administration do if its new strategy didn't work?

The conclusion they took away, the governors later said, was that there is no Plan B. "I'm a Marine," Pace told them, "and Marines don't talk about failure. They talk about victory."

Pace had a simple way of summarizing the administration's position, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-Tenn.) recalled. "Plan B was to make Plan A work."

In the weeks since Bush announced the new plan for Iraq -- including an increase of 21,500 U.S. combat troops, additional reconstruction assistance and stepped-up pressure on the Iraqi government -- senior officials have rebuffed questions about other options in the event of failure. Eager to appear resolute and reluctant to provide fodder for skeptics, they have responded with a mix of optimism and evasion.

Even if the administration is not talking about Plan B, the subject is on a lot of minds inside and outside the government. "I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged last month to Congress, where many favor gradual or immediate withdrawal.

Gates did not elaborate. Several administration officials, while insisting that a wide range of options was discussed before Bush's Jan. 10 announcement, firmly closed the door on the subject of fallback plans. "I don't think anyone is going to be inclined to discuss any contingency-type planning," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

National security experts outside the government have stepped into the void, offering detailed options through public papers, speeches and policy proposals over the past several weeks.

"The ultimate Plan B is pull everybody out," said Stephen D. Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to the Defense Department. "Nobody wants to do that. Most are looking at the middle ground between surge and pullout."

Most options involve partial or complete U.S. redeployment from Baghdad and other violent urban centers, followed by containment of the civil war within Iraq's borders -- keeping out meddlesome neighbors such as Iran and preventing a wider, regional conflict. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former chief of Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, said Congress is "drifting toward containment" and predicted that option will soon begin gaining popularity.

Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution last month released the most comprehensive public exploration of containment. The two national security experts seemed to wince even as they proposed keeping up to 80,000 troops along Iraq's borders, cautioning that "there would be no end in sight either for the war or for their mission." But it is "the only rational course of action," they wrote.

"I firmly believe that is where we should wind up, and is what we should be doing now," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, formerly the No. 2 U.S. officer in Europe.

One military officer involved in long-term planning for Iraq said he does not think the idea is feasible. "It would be a massive operation," the officer said. "But having said that, it's probably the best option if they go into open civil war."

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company