By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
December 05, 2006
"I don't think there are any good options," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There are no bonbons on the menu for Iraq. It's just which brand of castor oil you want to take."
It's not yet clear what options the commission, led by Republican former Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton, will recommend, despite the leak of some purported elements.
The reality of Iraq is far too complex to lend itself to easy solutions, the experts said.
"The options we keep putting forward and adapting are going to have to deal with what really happens, not with what experts predict," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who said he declined an invitation to participate in the commission's groups of experts.
"But is there a chance, over time, you can achieve political stability? Can you ameliorate the civil violence? Can you work with other states to put Iraq back on track, almost regardless of how bad things get in the short term? The answer to that is probably yes - if you have patience, if you persist, if you adapt to reality as it emerges and if you commit resources," said Cordesman. "We only have two choices. We can do that badly or we can do it well. Because we can't leave, can't avoid it, and we can't get out."
The U.S. military strategy in Iraq - the size and composition of its force, its mission and the duration of its stay - has probably received the most attention in recent weeks, as the number of American casualties has climbed steadily toward 3,000.
Options have been weighed by everyone from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the writers of letters to newspaper editors across America. And seemingly most of those ideas were floated before the Iraq Study Group panel, said James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a member of the study group's pool of experts.
"They really ran the gamut," he said. "Everything from stay the course, put 500,000 troops in there and stay forever, to withdraw in the next 10 minutes."
Both build-up-and-stay and draw-down-and-leave have pros and cons, said Biddle, author of "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle." He was not part of the Iraq Study Group expert pool.
Fans of increasing troop strength in Iraq include Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who argues that more troops are needed to prevent the conflict from spilling out of Iraq and feeding global terrorism.
The United States has the ability to sharply increase the troop strength in Iraq, Biddle said. But within months, those troops would start to burn out their Humvees, tank treads and other materiel that outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been criticized for ignoring in favor of high-tech new weapons.
"If you thought there was something you could accomplish in a six-month period of 50 or 60 percent higher troop counts, then it might make sense," Biddle said. "If you could get a political deal by saturating Iraq with American troops, then it might make sense to do it even if you do fall to much lower levels afterward. But I haven't heard anybody put forth an argument about what these troops are going to do while they're there that will bring that about."
The opposite extreme, rapid withdrawal, appeals to several groups, Biddle said: those who feel U.S. troops now are more of a cause of violence than a solution; those who have concluded that the progress likely still to be made in Iraq is not worth the cost of more American lives; and those who feel that removing U.S. troops would force the Iraqi government to come to grips with its responsibilities.
"So that the Iraqi politicians understand: One last chance," said former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, now a research fellow at the Potomac Institute who favors a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops on a clear timetable over the next year: first out of the urban areas, then to the borders and ultimately out of Iraq.
"With the theory that if they know we're leaving and we're not going to be there to protect them, they will take the hard steps and make the hard compromises necessary to create a political entity that makes it worth Iraqi soldiers and policemen to die for to protect," he said. "I think if they were to do that, the al Qaeda in Iraq thing would be relatively easily settled - not without violence, but settled by Iraqis taking care of these opponents of their country."
The problem, Biddle said, is that tactic assumes the threat of a U.S. withdrawal will force the Iraqis to come together. He argues that sectarian fighting is causing Iraqis to identify more with their religious or ethnic groups than with their nation, so a U.S. withdrawal is more likely to drive them apart.
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