’Plan B’ Scenarios in Iraq

With Iraq growing more violent by the month, experts say the status quo is unsustainable and are calling for a Plan B to avert an all-out civil war.

August 21, 2006 12:25 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:



This publication is now archived.


With rising levels of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, Democrats have intensified their criticism of the Bush administration’s policy, saying it is impossible to stay the course indefinitely. Republicans respond that their policy in Iraq is one of "adapt to win," not merely to stay the course, and counter that a hasty withdrawal strategy would only perpetuate the civil war there and leave the country a terrorist haven akin to Afghanistan in the 1990s. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, an early advocate of the Iraq war, says "it’s time to start thinking about Plan B—how we might disengage with the least damage possible." A number of exit strategies and suggestions have been floated to avert an all-out catastrophe, including calling for an immediate pullout of U.S. forces, establishing a Dayton-like peace conference involving Iraq’s neighbors, and partitioning the state into three semi-autonomous zones.

What has triggered calls for drastically altering U.S. policy in Iraq?

The sharp upturn in sectarian violence over the past six months, experts say. Top U.S. military commanders now admit the situation, left unchanged, could slide into civil war. As of mid-August, more than one hundred Iraqis were dying per day, the majority of them in Baghdad. More than 3,400 Iraqi civilians were killed in July alone. And while U.S. casualties are slightly down from previous months, the number of Americans wounded, mostly by car bombs, has risen. "[T]he United States cannot afford to be seen standing by while Iraqis slaughter each other," writes Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in the Weekly Standard. Eisenstadt said Washington’s recent decision to send thousands of extra troops to Baghdad is a step in the right direction.

What is the White House strategy on Iraq?

The U.S. strategy is focused on raising the professional standards of Iraqi security forces, building their capacity to independently patrol and secure their country, and reforming the security ministries to rid them of sectarian bias and abuses. Politically, U.S. officials are trying to bolster Iraqi efforts at developing a national unity government that can institute broad-based economic reforms.

President Bush has repeatedly said U.S. troops will step down as Iraqi forces step up and any plans for large withdrawals will be determined by military leaders on the ground. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman defines the White House approach as an "adapt-to-win" strategy, referring to the U.S. decisions to ratchet up the level of troops before last December’s election, rotate more soldiers into hotspots like Baghdad, and involve more international actors like the European Union and the United Nations. Judith S. Yaphe of the National Defense University supports the president’s strategy, even though it may mean more U.S. casualties in the short term, because all the other options "focus on our needs, our politics, our standards of democracy, our casualties, our potential loss of regional influence and our dependence on oil," she writes in the Los Angeles Times.

What are some Plan B solutions on Iraq?

  • Send in more troops. This is the proposal of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot, and others on both sides of the political spectrum. Boot favors rotating more divisions—as many as 35,000 troops—to Baghdad, which has grown increasingly violent in recent months, instead of increasing the troop presence there to 13,000. "If Bush thinks a force this size can secure a city of more than 6 million people, he’s not listening to the best professional military advice," Boot writes in the Los Angeles Times. Yet McCain, who has long supported a larger U.S. military presence in Iraq, cautions against redeploying more troops to the capital because it will only destabilize other parts of the country. A number of experts say that while more troops are needed, it is not politically feasible, given the war’s growing unpopularity during an election year.
  • Containment. At present, only a fraction of Iraq’s Shiites and Sunni populations have taken up arms. Eisenstadt stresses the need to contain the insurgency to prevent sectarian violence from spreading. He points to Britain’s successful strategy in countering the communist insurgency in Malaya (1948-1960) and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1956), whereby the violence did not spread beyond the minority communities involved. "Should the insurgency successfully exploit this untapped potential ["of hundreds of thousands of aggrieved Sunni Arabs with military or paramilitary training"], or forge tactical alliances with aggrieved members of other communities, it could greatly increase its capacity for violence," Eisenstadt writes.
  • Pull out of Iraq. This school of thought is espoused by many anti-war Democrats and some Republicans who echo Friedman’s view that "we can’t throw more good lives after good lives." But within this camp there are different exit strategies. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, writing in the Washington Post, favors a phased drawdown of forces from Iraq in a "manner that is not a complete humiliation and does not lead to even greater turmoil." He suggests deploying U.S. forces to northern Iraq to preempt an outbreak of violence between the Kurds and Turks and shifting more troops to Afghanistan. George Friedman, founder of the strategic consulting firm Stratfor, says "with 130,000 troops, the United States could not contain a civil war; the forces could only take casualties, while achieving nothing." He favors drawing down to a residual force of around 40,000 troops based in densely populated regions. Boot says this type of drawdown might be more sustainable long-term. "The money saved from downsizing the U.S. presence could be used to better train and equip more Iraqi units."
  • Convene a peace conference. Some experts suggest holding a peace conference based loosely on the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which spawned the Balkan Peace Implementation Council, or the UN-led "Six Plus Two" forum for Afghanistan in 1998. The conference, among other things, should focus on curtailing foreign assistance to Iraq’s warring factions as well as on stemming the flow of jihadis across its borders. The Times’ Friedman suggests involving regional players like Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as well as countries like China, India, Japan, and Russia. Yet as he admits, "[f]or such a conference to come about, though, the United States would probably need to declare its intention to leave." Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies favors following this peace conference with, as he told the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, a "donors conference of interested countries in Europe and the Far East who benefit from Iraqi oil on helping to rehabilitate Iraq."
  • Decentralize Iraq. This option, popularized by CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb, envisions decentralizing Iraq into "three strong regions with a limited but effective central government." Gelb writes in a Foreign Affairs roundtable that uniting Iraq by decentralizing "is not likely to make most Iraqis happy, but it is a plan that gives each group most of what it considers essential: re-blessed autonomy for the Kurds, some degree of autonomy and money for the Sunnis, and for the Shiites, the historic freedom to rule themselves and enjoy their future riches." A growing number of experts say some form of federalized Iraq will likely take shape but there are different variations of this option. Critics of Gelb’s plan say the division of oil revenues would be problematic, particularly given the resource-poor areas predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Others say anything resembling a de facto partition, because of ethnically mixed parts of Iraq’s various provinces, would only create more sectarian fighting, not less. "None will be satisfied with a "Sunnistan-Kurdistan-Shiastan" divide," writes Yaphe. "This would almost certainly spawn civil war. Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite communities are not monoliths; each has its secularists and Islamists, rich and poor, oligarchs and peasants."

Have expectations for Iraq’s future shifted in light of the latest violence?

Yes. The Bush administration rejects the popular refrain that Iraq is collapsing into civil war although Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted new concern about the sectarian fighting in a recent Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing. Most experts agree the White House, in effect, lowered its expectations of immediately establishing a secular and pluralist democracy in Iraq to reining in the violence and defeating the insurgency. The administration’s drive for democratization in the Middle East "should be subordinated (at least for the next several years) to its efforts to avert civil war in Iraq," James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center writes in this Foreign Affairs roundtable.

How has the political calendar affected U.S. policy in Iraq?

A number of experts, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who has advised Iraq’s Kurds, say President Bush lacks the political strength to unify Iraq. The war’s growing unpopularity played a key role in Connecticut’s race for Senate, in which incumbent Joseph Lieberman, a vocal supporter of the war, lost to anti-war challenger Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary. According to the most recent Zogby poll, 56 percent of the U.S. population says the war in Iraq is not worth the loss of Americans’ lives. "Terrorism is an important issue to Americans," says pollster John Zogby, "but when it comes to judging Bush’s presidency, their decision is based largely on Iraq." The election cycle has heated up the rhetoric surrounding the war. Democrats accuse Republicans of failing to grasp the grim realities in Iraq and adjust their strategy, while Republicans blast Democrats for being soft on terrorism.

More on:




Top Stories on CFR


The Delta variant is driving new COVID-19 surges, even as countries around the world make gradual progress in vaccinating their populations. Five graphics show how the strain is taking over and who’s at risk.

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

Opioid addiction in the United States has become a prolonged epidemic, threatening not only public health but economic output and national security.

United States

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 is on track to be the United States’ deadliest year for gun violence in two decades. How do other countries regulate firearms and respond to mass shootings?