Hot Topic: How U.S. Might Disengage in Iraq

David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt

New York Times

January 10, 2005

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 - Three weeks before the election in Iraq, conversation has started bubbling up in Congress, in the Pentagon and some days even in the White House about when and how American forces might begin to disengage in Iraq.

So far it is mostly talk, not planning. The only thing resembling a formal map to the exit door is a series of Pentagon contingency plans for events after the Jan. 30 elections. But a senior administration official warned over the weekend against reading too much into that, saying "the Pentagon has plans for everything," from the outbreak of war in Korea to relief missions in Africa.

The rumblings about disengagement have grown distinctly louder as members of Congress return from their districts after the winter recess, and as military officers try to game out how Sunni Arabs and Shiites might react to the election results. The annual drafting of the budget is a reminder that the American presence in Iraq is costing nearly $4.5 billion a month and putting huge strains on the military. And White House officials contemplate the political costs of a second term possibly dominated by a nightly accounting of continuing casualties.

By all accounts, President Bush has not joined the conversation about disengagement so far, though a few senior members of his national security team have.

A senior administration official said in an interview this weekend that Mr. Bush still intended to stick to his plan, refining his strategy of training Iraqis to take over security duties from Americans, but not wavering from his promise to stay until the job is done. "We are not in the business of trying to float timetables," the official insisted. "The only metric we have is when we can turn more and more over to local forces."

But all over Washington, there is talk about new ways to define when the mission is accomplished - not to cut and run, but not to linger, either. Several administration officials acknowledge that Mr. Bush will face crucial decisions soon after Jan. 30, when it should become clearer whether the election has resulted in more stability or more insurgency.

Already, the president found himself in a rare public argument last week with one of his father's closest friends and advisers, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser. The election "won't be a promising transformation, and it has great potential for deepening the conflict," Mr. Scowcroft declared Thursday, adding, "We may be seeing incipient civil war at this time."

Mr. Scowcroft said the situation in Iraq raised the fundamental question of "whether we get out now." He urged Mr. Bush to tell the Europeans on a trip to Europe next month: "I can't keep the American people doing this alone. And what do you think would happen if we pulled American troops out right now?"

In short, he was suggesting that Mr. Bush raise the specter that Iraq could collapse without a major foreign presence - exactly the rationale the administration has used for its current policy.

Mr. Bush, asked Friday whether he shared Mr. Scowcroft's concerns about "an incipient civil war," shot back, "Quite the opposite."

"I think elections will be such an incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people," he said.

But the president's optimism is in sharp contrast, some administration insiders say, to some conversations in the White House Situation Room, the Pentagon and Congress. For the first time, there are questions about whether it is politically possible to wait until the Iraqi forces are adequately trained before pressure to start bringing back American troops becomes overwhelming.

Some senators are now openly declaring that Iraqi military and police units are not up to the job.

Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said last week after meeting with top Pentagon officials, "In my judgment, a great deal of work needs to be done to achieve the level of forces that will allow our country and other members of the coalition to reduce force levels."

Before the recess, other Republican senators, including Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona, voiced skepticism about the Iraq policy. And on "Fox News Sunday," Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, said "we are now digging ourselves out of a hole" in Iraq.

Few in Washington missed the significance of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's decision last week to send a retired four-star general, Gary E. Luck, to Iraq to assess military operations and Iraqi security forces. It was driven, administration officials say, by an urgent need to determine what has gone wrong with the training of Iraqi troops.

In an interview with a Dallas radio station last week, Mr. Rumsfeld said he did not want to send more American troops to Iraq "because then we'd look more and more like an occupying force."

In classified strategy sessions, other administration officials say they are asking whether the sheer size of the American force, now 150,000 troops, is fueling the insurgency.

By last fall, the Pentagon had drafted contingency plans to begin reducing the American presence in Iraq as early as July 2005. But senior military officers say no one's picking a date now, and that any withdrawal depends on what happens after the elections, the security situation in Iraq, and the ability of Iraqi forces to secure the country.

One possibility quietly discussed inside the administration is whether the new Iraqi government might ask the United States forces to begin to leave - what one senior State Department official calls "the Philippine option," a reference to when the Philippines asked American forces to pull out a decade ago.

Few officials will talk publicly about that possibility. But in a speech on Oct. 8, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who had just completed a tour as commander of all marines in Iraq, said, "I believe there will be elections in Iraq in January, and I suspect very shortly afterward you will start to see a reduction in U.S. forces - not because U.S. planners will seek it, rather because the Iraqis will demand it."

General Conway, who is now the director of operations for the military's Joint Staff, was traveling this weekend, and it could not be determined if he still stood by his comments.

Even if the new government wants the American forces to remain, some officials say there is a growing undercurrent of talk about whether to press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own defense by giving them a rough timetable for gradual American withdrawal.

"It's clear to everyone that this has to become an Iraqi show, and it has to happen this year," a senior administration official said.

Military officers say actual security conditions, not schedules, will dictate any American troop reductions beyond a temporary increase of 12,000 troops for election security that is to end by early March.

"It's truly hard to say what anyone might regard as a realistic date," one general in Iraq said in an e-mail interview on Saturday.

Even as military planners at the Pentagon and in the Middle East draft possible withdrawal schedules, other Pentagon officials and retired officers are projecting long American troop commitments in Iraq.

Army officials here are still drawing up plans to sustain future rotations of troops at today's levels, plans that can be adapted, they said.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the invasion of Iraq, said on the NBC News program "Today" on Dec. 9: "One has to think about the numbers. I think we will be engaged with our military in Iraq for, perhaps, 3, 5, perhaps 10 years."