WASHINGTON – As President Bush weighs new policy options for Iraq, strong support has coalesced in the Pentagon behind a military plan to “double down” in the country with a substantial buildup in U.S. troops, an increase in industrial aid and a major combat offensive against Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader impeding development of the Iraqi government.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff will present their assessment and recommendations to President Bush at the Pentagon today.
Military officials, including some advising the chiefs, have argued that an intensified effort might be the only way to get the American counterinsurgency strategy right and provide a chance for victory.
The approach overlaps somewhat a course promoted publicly by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But the Pentagon proposals add several additional features, including the confrontation with al-Sadr, a possible renewed offensive in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar province, a large Iraqi jobs program and a proposal for a long-term increase in the size of the military.
Such an option would appear to satisfy Bush’s demand for a strategy focused on victory rather than disengagement from Iraq. It would disregard key recommendations and warnings of the Iraq Study Group, however, and provide little comfort for those fearful of a long, open-ended American commitment in the country.
“I think it is worth trying,” said a Defense official, using the gamblers’ term for upping a bet. “But you can’t have the rhetoric without the resources. This is a double down.”
Such a proposal, military officials and experts caution, would still be a gamble. Any chance of success would likely require major changes in the Iraqi government, they said. U.S. Embassy officials would have to help usher into power a new coalition in Baghdad that was willing to confront the militias. And the new military strategy also would require more spending by the United States, both for growth of the U.S. military and additional money for Iraqi jobs programs.
“You are dealing with an inherently difficult undertaking,” said Stephen Biddle, a military analyst called to the White House this week to advise Bush. “That doesn’t mean we should withdraw. But no one should go into this thinking if we double the size of the military the result will be victory. Maybe, but maybe not. You are buying the opportunity to enter a lottery.”
The wild card in the Pentagon planning process is Robert M. Gates, due to be sworn in as Defense secretary Monday. Gates had breakfast with Bush on Tuesday morning and will participate, along with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in today’s meetings.
Bush is making a public drive this week to collect recommendations from his administration as he crafts his new strategy for Iraq. But some Defense officials say Gates might make a bid for more time so he can weigh other military options. And before endorsing an increase in the number of combat forces, Gates might press commanders in Iraq for assurances that U.S. forces can hold off an escalation of the sectarian civil war that has gripped the country.
“This is the big moment,” said the Defense official. “It is enormously important for the new secretary of Defense to revisit what the overall objective is … and what is needed to achieve that.”
Defense officials interviewed for this article requested anonymity because the deliberations over the Pentagon’s recommendations are continuing and have not been made public.
Some military officers believe that Iraq has become a test of wills, and the United States needs to demonstrate to insurgents and sectarian militias that it is willing to stay and fight.
“I’ve come to the realization we need to go in in a big way,” said an Army officer. “You have to have an increase in troops. … We have to convince the enemy we are serious and we are coming in harder.”
The exact size of the troop increase the Pentagon will recommend is unclear. One officer suggested an increase of some 40,000 forces would be required, but other officials said such a number is unrealistic.
The problem with any sort of surge is that it would require an eventual drop in 2008, unless the president was willing to take the politically unpopular move of remobilizing the National Guard and sending reserve combat units back to Iraq.
But military officials are taking a close look at a proposal advanced by Frederick W. Kagan, a former West Point Military Academy historian, to combine a surge with a quick buildup of the overall size of the Marines and Army. That could allow newly formed units to take the place of the brigades sent in to augment the current force.
Kagan, who plans to release a preliminary report on his proposal Thursday, said he has discussed his ideas with people in the government. Although the military has had trouble meeting recruiting goals, Kagan said Army officials believe they can recruit at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year. The Army missed its recruiting targets in 2005 but met this year’s goal.