March 5, 2007

Mum On Plan B

The Pentagon has not discussed an alternate strategy for Iraq if the surge does not produce the desired results, the Washington Post reports. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs chairman, parries such questions with the response that "Marines don't talk about failure," and that "Plan B is to make Plan A work":

In the weeks since Bush announced the new plan for Iraq -- including an increase of 21,500 U.S. combat troops, additional reconstruction assistance and stepped-up pressure on the Iraqi government -- senior officials have rebuffed questions about other options in the event of failure. Eager to appear resolute and reluctant to provide fodder for skeptics, they have responded with a mix of optimism and evasion.

Even if the administration is not talking about Plan B, the subject is on a lot of minds inside and outside the government. "I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged last month to Congress, where many favor gradual or immediate withdrawal.

Gates did not elaborate. Several administration officials, while insisting that a wide range of options was discussed before Bush's Jan. 10 announcement, firmly closed the door on the subject of fallback plans. "I don't think anyone is going to be inclined to discuss any contingency-type planning," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

The Pentagon warplans and games strategies and scenarios on a constant basis. They have a number of options on the table; that much was true when Bush decided on the surge. Staff officers and the White House will have them prioritized and ready for implementation when needed.

But that's not really the point of this article. Anyone who understands military operations would know that a multiplicity of alternatives have already been discussed, formulated, and selected. This article is of a piece with the meme of the last couple of years: that Bush could not admit mistakes. It's a transparent catch-22. If the Bush administration refuses to discuss the alternatives, then the media can say they have no fallback plans. If they start discussing the alternatives, their political opponents can use them to insist on transitioning to the fallbacks immediately.

The Post also reports on the rise of an old term in Iraqi security policy: containment. That plan would have the US pull back from major population centers in order to allow the Iraqis to have their civil war, while we blockade the borders to make sure no one else interferes. That certainly could be one of the alternatives to the surge, but it's easy to see why it wasn't adopted. It would put hostile forces on both sides of a stretched-out American line around the Syrian and Iranian borders, and would almost certainly get defunded by Congress as an inappropriate use of American military forces.

Another plan would be to pull back to the Kurdish area in the north and fight al-Qaeda in Anbar, leaving Maliki to sink or swim on his own in the rest of Iraq. It sounds good, but one look at the map shows the limitations of that idea. There are no good lines of communication into those areas without some control in the south. We're currently using the Gulf ports, Kuwait, and Qatar for our logistics. If we abandon the east and south, we make resupply and logistics exponentially more difficult.

Perhaps this is why other options don't get much discussion from the Pentagon. Winning the war and ending the violence in Baghdad remains the best policy. Plan B should focus on making that Plan A successful.


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