The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.
Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.
But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.
The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.
At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq — including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias — without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.
The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.
The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn — then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.
Even the announcement of a time frame and mission — such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad — could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.
The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.
A senior administration official said it is "too simplistic" to say the surge question has broken down into a fight between the White House and the Pentagon, but the official acknowledged that the military has questioned the option. "Of course, military leadership is going to be focused on the mission -- what you're trying to accomplish, the ramifications it would have on broader issues in terms of manpower and strength and all that," the official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said military officers have not directly opposed a surge option. "I've never heard them be depicted that way to the president," the official said. "Because they ask questions about what the mission would be doesn't mean they don't support it. Those are the kinds of questions the president wants his military planners to be asking."
The concerns raised by the military are sometimes offset by concerns on the other side. For instance, those who warn that a short-term surge would harm longer-term deployments are met with the argument that the situation is urgent now, the official said. "Advocates would say: 'Can you afford to wait? Can you afford to plan in the long term? What's the tipping point in that country? Do you have time to wait?' "
Which way Bush is leaning remains unclear. "The president's keeping his cards pretty close to his vest," the official said, "and I think people may be trying to interpret questions he's asking and information he's asking for as signs that he's made up his mind."
Robert M. Gates, who was sworn in yesterday as defense secretary, is headed for Iraq this week and is expected to play a decisive role in resolving the debate, officials said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's views are still open, according to State Department officials. The principals met again yesterday to continue discussions.
The White House yesterday noted the growing number of reports about what is being discussed behind closed doors. "It's also worth issuing a note of caution, because quite often people will try to litigate preferred options through the press," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters.
Discussions are expected to continue through the holidays. Rice is expected to travel to the president's ranch near Crawford, Tex., after Christmas for consultations on Iraq. The administration's foreign policy principals are also expected to hold at least two meetings during the holiday. The White House has said the president will outline his new strategy to the nation early next year.
As the White House debate continues, another independent report on Iraq strategy is being issued today by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based crisis monitoring group that includes several former U.S. officials. It calls for more far-reaching policy revisions and reversals than did even the Iraq Study Group report, the bipartisan report issued two weeks ago.
‘A clean break’
The new report calls the study group's recommendations "not nearly radical enough" and says that "its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis." It continues: "What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region."
The Iraqi government and military should not be treated as "privileged allies" because they are not partners in efforts to stem the violence but rather parties to the conflict, it says. Trying to strengthen the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not contribute to Iraq's stability, it adds. Iraq's escalating crisis cannot be resolved militarily, the report says, and can be solved only with a major political effort.
The International Crisis Group proposes three broad steps: First, it calls for creation of an international support group, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Iraq's six neighbors, to press Iraq's constituents to accept political compromise.
Second, it urges a conference of all Iraqi players, including militias and insurgent groups, with support from the international community, to forge a political compact on controversial issues such as federalism, distribution of oil revenue, an amnesty, the status of Baath Party members and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Finally, it suggests a new regional strategy that would include engagement with Syria and Iran and jump-starting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.