U.S. military officials here are increasingly envisioning a "post-occupation" troop presence in Iraq that neither maintains current levels nor leads to a complete pullout, but aims for a smaller, longer-term force that would remain in the country for years.
This goal, drawn from recent interviews with more than 20 U.S. military officers and other officials here, including senior commanders, strategists and analysts, remains in the early planning stages. It is based on officials' assessment that a sharp drawdown of troops is likely to begin by the middle of next year, with roughly two-thirds of the current force of 150,000 moving out by late 2008 or early 2009. The questions officials are grappling with are not whether the U.S. presence will be cut, but how quickly, to what level and to what purpose.
One of the guiding principles, according to two officials here, is that the United States should leave Iraq more intelligently than it entered. Military officials, many of whom would be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity, say they are now assessing conditions more realistically, rejecting the "steady progress" mantra of their predecessors and recognizing that short-term political reconciliation in Iraq is unlikely. A reduction of troops, some officials argue, would demonstrate to anti-American factions that the occupation will not last forever while reassuring Iraqi allies that the United States does not intend to abandon the country.
Logistical realities of Iraq
The planning is shaped in part by logistical realities in Iraq. The immediate all-or-nothing debate in Washington over troop levels represents a false dilemma, some military officials said. Even if a total pullout is the goal, it could take a year to execute a full withdrawal. One official estimated that with only one major route from the country -- through southern Iraq to Kuwait -- it would take at least 3,000 large convoys some 10 months to remove U.S. military gear and personnel alone, not including the several thousand combat vehicles that would be needed to protect such an operation.
"We're not going to go from where we're at now to zero overnight," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq.
U.S. officials also calculate that underneath the anti-American rhetoric, even Shiite radicals such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr don't really want to see a total U.S. pullout, especially while they feel threatened by Sunni insurgents. Also, officials think any Iraqi government will prefer to keep a small U.S. combat force to deter foreign intervention.
Such a long-term presence would have four major components. The centerpiece would be a reinforced mechanized infantry division of around 20,000 soldiers assigned to guarantee the security of the Iraqi government and to assist Iraqi forces or their U.S. advisers if they get into fights they can't handle.
Second, a training and advisory force of close to 10,000 troops would work with Iraqi military and police units. "I think it would be very helpful to have a force here for a period of time to continue to help the Iraqis train and continue to build their capabilities," Odierno said.
In addition, officials envision a small but significant Special Operations unit focused on fighting the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq. "I think you'll retain a very robust counterterror capability in this country for a long, long time," a Pentagon official in Iraq said.
Finally, the headquarters and logistical elements to command and supply such a force would total more than 10,000 troops, plus some civilian contractors.
'Protracted' U.S. presence
The thinking behind this "post-occupation" force, as one official called it, echoes the core conclusion of a Joint Chiefs of Staff planning group that last fall secretly considered three possible courses in Iraq, which it categorized as "go big," "go home" and "go long." The group's recommendation to reshape the U.S. presence in order to "go long" -- to remain in Iraq for years with a smaller force -- appears to carry weight in Baghdad, where some of the colonels who led that planning group have been working for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq since February.
Despite the significant differences in the way the war has been discussed in Washington and in Baghdad, this plan is emerging as a point of convergence between the two capitals. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and White House spokesman Tony Snow both recently made comments indicating that the administration is thinking along the same lines as military officials here. Snow has likened the possible long-term mission of U.S. troops in Iraq to the protective role American forces have played in South Korea since the end of the Korean War 54 years ago. And Gates said recently that is he considering a "protracted" U.S. presence in Iraq rather than a complete withdrawal.
This is hardly the first time officials have considered troop reductions. The original U.S. war plan called for the Army to have only 30,000 troops in Iraq by fall 2003; later, top commanders planned for a drawdown in the summer of 2004. Neither option came to pass, as the military found itself engaged in a tougher and longer war in Iraq than it or the Bush administration had expected.
But officials here insist that they are now assessing the situation more soberly. For example, when Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, briefed reporters last month, he expressed worries about the performance of Iraqi forces and called the Iraqi government in Diyala province "nonfunctional." He also said candidly that he did not have enough soldiers in Diyala. As one officer here put it, his comments were of the sort that generals in Iraq once discussed in private but avoided stating publicly.
"I think there's a greater appreciation for complexity," said Lt. Col. Brad Brown, a crisis manager for the 1st Cavalry Division, which is overseeing operations in Baghdad.
Dismissing 2004-06 years
Officials now dismiss the 2004-06 years -- when Gen. George W. Casey Jr. was in command -- as a fruitless "rush to transition," as one senior defense official here put it. "The idea was, 'As they stand up, we'll stand down,' " he said. That phrase has been all but banished from the Green Zone, as has the notion of measuring U.S. progress in Iraq by the number of Iraqi troops trained or by changes in U.S. casualty counts.
"We had previously 'transitioned' ourselves into irrelevance, and the whole thing was going to hell in a handbasket," a senior official commented in an e-mail.
Top military officials even say that Iraq's elections in December 2005 only deepened sectarian divides and contributed to the outbreak of a low-grade civil war in Baghdad last year. "We wanted an election in the worst way, and we got one in the worst way," one U.S. general here said.
Another major difference is that U.S. officials, both political and military, say they are more willing to take chances than before. The clearest gamble was the decision in January to move U.S. troops off big, isolated bases and into 60 small, relatively vulnerable outposts across Baghdad. However, the risk-taking also includes reaching out to people once declared enemies of the United States, such as Sadr, the Shiite cleric. "Some people say he might be ready to negotiate behind the scenes," Odierno said in an interview.
In addition, commanders will be forced to lean heavily in coming months on Iraqi security forces, whose performance has been mixed at best. The U.S. strategy in Baghdad of "clear, hold and build" calls for clearing neighborhoods of enemy forces, then holding them with a sustained military presence while reconstruction efforts get underway. Yet by itself, the United States does not have enough troops to "hold," so that mission must be executed by Iraqis.
"My nightmare -- the thing that keeps me up at night -- is a failure of Iraqi security forces, somehow, catastrophically, mixed with a major Samarra-mosque-type catastrophe," Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, said last week, referring to the February 2006 bombing of a mosque in Samarra that sparked renewed civil strife.
Even as they focus on the realities in Iraq, officials here are also keeping an eye on Washington politics. Despite the talk in the U.S. capital that Petraeus has only until September to stabilize the situation in Iraq, some officers here are quietly suggesting that they really may have until Jan. 20, 2009 -- when President Bush leaves office -- to put the smaller, revised force in place. They doubt that Bush will pull the plug on the war or that Congress will ultimately force his hand.
Such timing matters because, despite some tactical success in making some Baghdad neighborhoods safer, officials here believe the real test of the U.S. troop increase will be its ability to create space over time for political accommodation among rival Iraqi factions. Officers agree that hasn't happened yet -- at least not significantly enough to make a difference in Washington.