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The hard-hitting Iraq Study Group (ISG) report is just one of several that President Bush will consider in the coming months. Reports from the National Security Council (NSC), the Pentagon, and a number of think tanks are also likely to cross his desk. None of the options on the table appear to advocate fixed timetables to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq but rather offer tactical shifts on troop levels, milestones the Iraqi government must meet, and calls to strengthen the local security forces. While President Bush has spoken out against any “graceful exit” prior to complete victory and has expressed doubts about directly engaging with Iraqi neighbors like Iran and Syria, experts predict he will make some policy shifts. They say he may select parts of the various plans mentioned to forge a strategy moving forward.
What are the main elements of the ISG report?
Of its seventy-nine proposals—dealing with issues of criminal justice, reconstruction, oil revenues, intelligence gathering, and military training—there are three principal recommendations from the bipartisan commission:
- Change mission of U.S. forces. The ISG says U.S. soldiers should shift from a combat role to one of supporting Iraqi security forces. This can be accomplished by embedding more U.S. forces (from 4,000 to 20,000) with Iraqi brigades and significantly phasing out combat forces by early 2008, leaving only advisory troops and rapid-reaction teams behind in neighboring states like Kuwait.
- Prompt action by Iraqi government. The ISG sets certain milestones on governance, national reconciliation, and security that the Iraqi government must meet or else face a loss of American economic, political, and military support. This proposal makes it clear that Iraqi leaders must accept responsibility for their country’s lack of progress, that the solutions to Iraq’s problems are political not military, and that there is “no open-ended commitment to keep U.S. forces deployed to Iraq.”
- Engage in greater regional diplomacy. The ISG calls for the creation of what it calls the International Iraq Support Group, a diplomatic regional initiative that brings in all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as well as the five permanent UN Security Council members and the European Union. The ISG also calls for active negotiations to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace. “Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else,” says James A. Baker, III, one of the report’s cochairs.
What other plans on Iraq are expected?
- Pentagon Plan. Leaks of this review, whose release date is unknown, suggest it consists of three options: “go big,” “go long,” and “go home.” That is, the U.S. military can either substantially boost the number of forces to bring security to Iraq in the short term (go big); lower the number of remaining troops slowly while shifting their role from combat to more of an advisory role while making a longer-term commitment to leave them in Iraq (go long); or, finally, withdraw large numbers of U.S. troops or, as some Democrats have proposed, redeploy them to Iraq’s periphery (in effect, go home). The Washington Post suggests the Pentagon plan will recommend a hybrid of the first two options: a short-term boost in the number of troops by as many as 30,000, followed by a drawdown of troops to 60,000 to play largely a supportive role, not a combat one. “I think they’ll recommend: Prepare for the long haul and work more with Iraqis,” says Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It’s not really training, it’s motivation.”
Kalev Sepp of the Naval Postgraduate School says captains and senior sergeants, not entry-level infantrymen, should be responsible for the bulk of the advising. “Troops are wholly useless in advising,” he says. The Pentagon review, which was commissioned by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should not be affected by the arrival of Robert M. Gates to head the defense department. “Unless they get a very hard push-back from Gates during the early days of his tenure, the officers will try to reassert military control over the strategy in Iraq and the investment agenda," said Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute told the Washington Post.
- National Security Council Plan. This in-house analysis is expected soon, but what it will contain remains unclear. Korb thinks the plan will echo the ISG’s calls to put pressure on the Iraqis and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, “without jeopardizing the situation,” and include talks of a regional conference but one excluding Iran and Syria. Peter Khalil, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group, says the plan is not likely to contain anything new and probably will reflect National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley’s earlier suggestion to reach out to Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors.
Khalil does not rule out the possibility that either the NSC or the Pentagon plan will recommend direct dialogue with Iran. “I think there are some pragmatic elements within the administration starting to understand they may need Iranian support to allow a smooth extrication of U.S. troops in the next couple of years,” he says. He thinks one of the two plans may also advocate shifting more power to the Supreme Council on Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a prominent and pro-Iran Shiite party whose leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, met with President Bush at the White House in early December 2006. The purpose would be, Khalil says, “to isolate [Muqtada al-] Sadr politically” and take down his Mahdi Army. “The fact that Hakim is sitting in the Oval Office means it’s pretty clear the United States is not going to be antagonistic toward [SCIRI’s militia] the Badr Brigade.”
Sepp does not expect the NSC plan to produce any breakthroughs. “The NSC has had three and half years to get this right,” he says. “Contrasting everything to what they’ve produced to this point, it doesn’t seem to indicate the NSC staff will produce a better, more refined, and more achievable document than what the ISG produced.”
What other plans are under consideration?
A number of think tanks have floated proposals. Most recently, retired Marine Corps General Anthony C. Zinni issued a report for the World Security Institute advocating a short-term boost in the number of troops deployed, a plan backed by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). His plan acknowledges that Iraq will take between five and seven years to stabilize and that there are no short-term solutions. Another report, authored by Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, emphasizes the need to better train Iraqi forces but admits that “no form of U.S. military action and Iraqi force development can succeed without Iraqi political success.”
Why are there so many in-house plans on Iraq?
Most experts say the NSC plan is a means to provide political cover for the White House in the wake of the congressionally commissioned ISG report and allow for more options on Iraq. Khalil says the purpose—and timing—of the NSC plan is to give President Bush “a political out” and wiggle room to reject elements of the ISG study. “By giving the administration multiple reports, the administration has more of a menu to draw from,” Sepp says. Experts say the Pentagon report, for instance, is likely to carry significant weight in the White House because President Bush has repeatedly deferred to commanders on the ground on deployment options.
Which of the plans is President Bush likely to adopt?
“I think he’ll cherry-pick what he wants to,” Khalil says. “He can’t take the [ISG] recommendation wholesale,” and has already indicated he will not adopt all seventy-nine of its proposals. Some say the president will make only some minor tactical adjustments, based mainly on the Pentagon and NSC proposals. Others expect the president may adopt a “go long” strategy that effectively reduces the number of combat troops by 2008 and alters the mission of those remaining to one of training and advising Iraqi forces (Sepp says General George Casey, who oversees all multinational forces in Iraq, had earlier proposed a military plan similar to the ISG’s). The president may give consideration to a regional diplomatic initiative, as advised by the ISG report, but may not invite the Iranians or Syrians to the table. Korb says the president’s moves will depend a lot on the incoming defense secretary. “Gates is the key here,” he says. “He wouldn’t have taken the job unless the president would make some modifications.” All the plans are expected to make clear that a military solution will not resolve the violence or political stalemate in Iraq.
What was the White House’s previous plan?
In November 2005, the White House revised its National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, which was devised by Peter D. Feaver of Duke University who is currently a senior adviser to Hadley. The plan contained political, economic, and strategic components. The political part of the plan called for a “free, representative government” of national unity and rejected demands to split the country apart by sectarian lines. The economic—or “restore, reform, build”—part consisted of rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure, promoting the private sector, and boosting oil production. The security component entailed a “clear, hold, and build” strategy, whereby U.S. forces “clear” an insurgent stronghold of terrorists, “hold” it by providing security, and “build” local institutions.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was known to be critical of the plan, especially the provision to “build.” The plan was also criticized for: failing to provide enough troops (some commanders originally asked for up to 500,000); setbacks in reconstruction, hampered by lax oversight, higher-than-expected security costs, and rampant corruption by both Iraqis and U.S. contractors; and an inability to tamp down violence, or “hold,” Sunni insurgent strongholds, thus inviting reprisal killings by Shiite death squads, creating a vicious cycle of violence.