The Pentagon is conducting a major review of the military's Iraq strategy to determine "what's going wrong and should be changed" to attain U.S. objectives in the war-torn country, the nation's top general said yesterday.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, initiated the review this fall after starkly deteriorating security in Baghdad led commanders there to rule out any significant cut in the level of U.S. troops in Iraq -- now at about 145,000 -- according to senior defense officials and sources.
Pace said he is working with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who as head of Central Command oversees the U.S. military in the Middle East, on recommendations for how to improve Iraq strategy.
Iraq at a crossroads
The military's growing view is that Iraq is at a crossroads, spurred largely by intensified sectarian fighting and mounting U.S. casualties on the ground. Pace's review coincides with political pressure in Washington to find alternatives to the current Iraq policy, heightened by this week's election and the Democratic takeover of Congress.
Pace is scheduled to meet early next week with members of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission mandated by Congress to review the Bush administration's Iraq policy and propose changes, a senior defense official said. Pace's review and other military recommendations are expected to be merged with the work of the Iraq Study Group as part of a broad effort by the administration to redefine Iraq policy. "It will become part of something bigger," the source said.
"We need to give ourselves a good, honest scrub about what is working, what is not working, what are the impediments to progress, and what should we change about the way we're doing it," Pace said in an interview yesterday with CBS News.
"We'll make the changes that are needed to get ourselves more focused on the correct objectives," Pace said, adding in a later interview that the U.S. objectives are themselves in question.
In a string of television appearances to mark Veterans Day, Pace declined to provide details of any specific recommendations for major military shifts in Iraq, saying that would be "premature" and could compromise the effort. "We should not be signaling to our enemies what we're going to do next," he told MSNBC.
A new kind of review?
Pace said he and other military officials "continuously review what's going right, what's going wrong, what needs to change" and give the defense secretary and the president their "best military advice."
Still, sources said that Pace's review marks a more fundamental and open-ended look for possible solutions in Iraq than the military has undertaken to date, growing out of a realization that Iraq could descend into chaos and that the current strategy is inadequate.
"The collapse of the strategy in Baghdad . . . caused a very deep introspection by the military," said a source connected to the Pentagon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
‘You have to define “winning”’
Asked by one interviewer whether the United States is winning the war in Iraq, Pace replied: "You have to define 'winning.' I don't mean to be glib about that.
"Winning, to me, is simply having each of the nations that we're trying to help have a secure environment inside of which their government and people can function," he said, in remarks that seemed to depart significantly from the administration's more ambitious stated goal of building a thriving democracy in Iraq.
"You are not going to do away with terrorism," Pace continued. "But you can provide governments in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere with enough security capacity to keep the acts below a level at which their governments can function," he said.
Bigger role for generals?
Pace's comments also could foreshadow a reassertion of influence by senior officers in the wake of this week's resignation by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to military officers and analysts. Moreover, some military officers have voiced concern in recent days that if they do not assert a greater role in formulating a future course in Iraq, that course will be defined for them by the resurgence of congressional Democrats, many of whom favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"Senior military officers in Rumsfeld's watch felt their counsel was only welcomed when it was congenial to Rumsfeld's view, and they now want the whole story, good and bad, to be reflected in whatever strategy the administration pursues," said Loren B. Thompson, a national security expert at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank.
Pace said yesterday that he was surprised and saddened by Rumsfeld's resignation, calling him "a strong advocate for all of us in the military." But he also praised President Bush's nominee to replace Rumsfeld, former CIA chief Robert M. Gates, as a "very talented, dedicated patriot." Gates "has a reputation as a man who gets things done, a man who is collaborative and solicits subordinates' opinions," Pace said.
"Unless they get a very hard push-back from Mr. 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," Thompson said.
Pace said the military will forge ahead with its work in Iraq, regardless of the change in civilian leadership at the Pentagon. "The change in leadership itself will not have a direct impact on what we do or don't do in Iraq," he said. "We in the military are used to changes of command."