Pentagon officials said Thursday they will be ready on Inauguration Day with plans for a quick pullout of U.S. combat troops from Iraq if Barack Obama orders one, as he pledged to do during his White House campaign.
A 16-month timeline for withdrawal of battle forces from Iraq is among options being prepared, with an eye to Obama's pledge to call the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House on his first day in office with instructions to close down a war he opposed.
"Our military planners do not live in a vacuum," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "They are well aware that the president-elect campaigned on withdrawing (combat) troops from Iraq on a 16-month timeline, so it would be only prudent of them to draw up plans that reflected that option."
The 16-month option, which would represent a speedier withdrawal of battle troops from Iraq than defense officials preferred, would be among a range of plans presented to Obama whenever he asks, Morrell said. Since that request could come as early as the afternoon of Inauguration Day on Tuesday, the plans will be ready then, Morrell said.
"They will not begin to present him with options for the way forward in Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter, until he is commander in chief," Morrell said, "but they are prepared to give him a full range of options as soon as he is ready."
All the options would come with an outline of potential risks, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Obama has said he wants to increase forces.
Obama has not asked for any withdrawal plans or advice ahead of his swearing-in, and has not yet asked for that promised meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and others who will be his senior military advisers.
"The chairman looks forward to having a discussion with President-elect Obama when he is in office about national security issues and will provide his best advice when he's asked for it," said Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby.
Defense officials would not provide details of the emerging 16-month plan or other possible timelines, although the Pentagon was already drawing separate pullout plans that would meet terms of an agreement the United States signed with Iraq late last year. Those plans for a slower drawdown were described to Obama before Christmas.
The Pentagon has also hired a contractor, the Rand Corp., to do detailed analyses of the logistics and risks involved in pulling out combat forces under several possible timelines. Results of that study are expected by summer.
Mullen has said he can meet Obama's deadline, although he had once described it as risky.
"I've been listening to the campaign, and I understand," Mullen told The Associated Press in an interview in late November. "And he has certainly reinforced that since the election, so from a planning standpoint, we are looking at that as well."
Mullen said then that the Pentagon had already identified and practiced travel routes for forces leaving Iraq through Turkey and Jordan.
The governments in those two bordering countries are U.S. allies, and Mullen said they support the withdrawal planning effort.
Both Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will stay in their jobs under the incoming Democratic administration. That means that leaders once charged with resisting what President Bush called artificial or even dangerous timelines for an unpredictable war will probably be in charge of enforcing a deadline.
In July, Mullen sounded very much like Bush.
Asked about the possibility of withdrawing all combat troops within two years, he said, "I think the consequences could be very dangerous."
"It hard to say exactly what would happen. I'd worry about any kind of rapid movement out and creating instability where we have stability," he said.
Michele Flournoy, Obama's pick to head the Pentagon's policy office, told lawmakers on Thursday that she had not had a chance to review withdrawal plans but that a major challenge will be pulling troops out of Iraq "while maintaining a secure environment to support elections, political reconciliation and economic development."
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Flournoy whether the Obama administration would insist that Baghdad cover some of the costs of the war, including the redeployment of U.S. troops. Several lawmakers say it is unfair that the U.S. has to foot the bill for the war, while the Iraqi government enjoys a budget surplus because of oil revenues.
In a statement provided to the panel, Flournoy indicated that she believes such requests might be premature. Noting that the U.S. has not asked Iraq for the money, Flournoy added: "I believe the U.S. government should encourage Iraq to focus on the development and support of its security forces."
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.