By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 27, 2007
President Bush and his top aides have signaled in recent days that they are beginning to look more closely at a "post-surge" strategy that would involve a smaller U.S. troop presence in Iraq and a mission focused on fighting al-Qaeda and training the Iraqi army.
Even as the final installment of the nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops has yet to arrive in Iraq, the officials are talking publicly and privately about how U.S. strategy might change if the additional forces are able to stem sectarian violence in Baghdad.
"I would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq," Bush said at a news conference Thursday. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace offered similar comments that day, telling reporters that military leaders would be reviewing a new approach as they await a September report by Gen. David H. Petraeus on the progress made by the additional troops.
Gates described a "transition" toward a role that would "train, equip, continue to go after al-Qaeda and provide support. . . . That kind of a role clearly would involve fewer forces than we have now, and forces with a different mission."
The president met last week with his senior advisers to discuss Iraq and was not focused on withdrawing troops, according to administration officials. But the recent statements may reflect a recognition in the administration that time is running short, both in the ability of the Iraqi government to achieve political reconciliation and in Congress's patience for a major U.S. combat presence. Privately, administration officials acknowledge that they are beginning to consider scenarios for what happens after the additional troops are in place.
Although Bush last week forced Congress to agree to fund the next three months of the war with no timelines for withdrawal, leading Republicans are saying that they expect a new strategy this fall, after the Petraeus report. The Washington Post reported last week that Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, are drawing up a plan that would focus on political deals to defuse the sectarian violence.
In one of his strongest statements to date, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), a key administration ally, told reporters Friday that "the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it."
"I think he himself has certainly indicated he's not happy with where we are," he added.
Administration officials said they are beginning to discuss future troop levels, but they said no decisions have been made. They are developing some scenarios to sustain the additional troops through 2008 and others to begin drawing down in early 2008, among other variations. Strategic planning will depend on events on the ground, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were describing internal administration deliberations.
The New York Times reported yesterday that officials are discussing "concepts" of reducing U.S. troops, now close to 150,000, to 100,000 by sometime in 2008. Administration officials shot that down, saying that various estimates may be coming from the Pentagon but that no top scenario has emerged.
"The reinforcements are not even all in Iraq yet," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday. "We of course would like to be in a position to bring down troop levels, but certain conditions, as assessed by senior military advisers and commanders on the ground, need to be met."
The administration is trying to make judgments about where it will be in the months ahead, and officials are discussing possibilities accordingly. The scenarios for troop withdrawal are based on the premise of a successful "surge." There is also discussion about what to do if the buildup plan fails, but officials are unwilling to discuss it with outsiders even privately.
Some Democrats said they see hints that the administration may be set to change course. "Sounds to me like the president has a Plan B after all, and that it includes timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Democrats will continue to insist that this administration accept responsibility for its failed conduct of this war and that the Iraqi government accept responsibility for its own future."
Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said troop levels are likely to come down next year, whatever scenario plays out on the ground. The purpose of the current troop increase is to give the Iraqi government time to make political accommodations that could reduce sectarian violence. If that happens, they say, the United States could begin cutting forces by March 2008, when the stress on U.S. troops would reach a critical point.
And if the troop increase does not lead to political progress, as many U.S. officials fear, then by early next year there will be little reason to maintain the current level of forces. So, although the White House remains far from a final decision, military planners anticipate that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq could be reduced in 2008.