Advice Not Taken

The Iraq Study Group was warned by the former State Department coordinator of intelligence on Iraq that the option of sharply increasing the number of U.S. trainers in the Iraqi military -- a plan that the ISG recommended in their final report and the Pentagon has now approved -- probably would fail, even if accompanied by 50,000 additional U.S. troops and the adoption of favorable policies by the Iraqi government.

Wayne White, former Deputy Director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Near Eastern Division, combined that blunt warning with a proposal to give such a training initiative and other "surge" measures a one-year trial, but only on the condition that it be linked to a commitment to withdrawal if found to be unsuccessful.

White thus created a new option, known within the ISG as "Option 3.5," because it combined the two options under review, "stability first" and "redeploy and contain," that had been called Options 3 and 4. Those two options had been developed over a period of weeks by the U.S. Institute of Peace Secretariat based on input from the ISG Working Groups, according to White and another source familiar with the process. (Option 1 -- "victory" in Iraq -- was discarded early on by the ISG, and Option 2, which was to focus on the terrorists, was regarded as a subset of other options.)

Last September, White, a 26-year veteran of Middle East intelligence analysis and the State Department's leading analyst on Iraq during virtually the entire Iraq war until his retirement in 2005, was asked by Daniel Serwer of the ISG Secretariat to provide an oral briefing to the principles on what was being called "Stability First" or Option 3. The paper on the option called for an undefined increase in U.S. combat troops in Baghdad and a very sharp rise in the number of U.S. officers providing training for Iraqi security forces, while also pursuing regional diplomacy and more efforts at promoting reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis.

But White believed that option would only lead to more failure. "I told him I didn't believe in Option 3 and that I'd have to criticize it," he recalls. He favored the proposal for "Option 4" -- "Redeploy and Contain" -- which called for an announcement of a "strategic decision" to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq within one year, accompanied by convening of a regional "contact group" to "mitigate the impact of U.S. withdrawal." White sensed, however, that the principles would not support that option, and was concerned that they would instead embrace an unrealistic policy option with no backup plan.

White recalls that he emphasized in his September 18 oral briefing for the principals that "stability first" should not be tried without stringent conditions being fulfilled, including engaging the insurgents more fully and revising the constitution to accommodate Sunni interests. White believed it was extremely unlikely that the Shiite government would accept a commitment to such conditions. But even with all the additional troops and advisers and the unlikely adoption of favorable policies, he warned that the chances of success would be less than 50/50. And he insisted that if such a proposal was to be tried, it should be limited to a year, and if it failed, it should be followed immediately by troop withdrawal.

White says he also warned the ISG members that the proposal for embedding many thousands of trainers in the Iraqi security and a short-term increase in U.S. combat troop carried a risk of much higher U.S. casualties. A source close to the ISG confirmed the essence of White's account of the briefing.

In later meetings of all the advisers to the ISG, White says he argued that a surge in troop strength would have to be closer to 100,000 to make an impact, and was informed by Dan Serwer of the Secretariat that 50,000 was the maximum increase that was considered possible by the U.S. military in any case. Various proposals floated in recent weeks by right-wing hawks, including some retired veterans of the Iraq war, for an increase in combat strength of anywhere from 14,000 to 35,000 troops are reportedly being given serious consideration by George W. Bush. Such increases would fall far short of the troop levels that White indicated would increase the chances of stabilizing the situation. They are also being proposed without the political preconditions that White insists are necessary.

In early November, White submitted a formal three-page analytical paper to the principals, which he called "Option 3.5: One Final Push for Success Linked to Withdrawal and Redeployment as a Fallback." In that paper he wrote, presciently, "The likelihood of reversing this dangerously unstable situation with current resources is nil." White wrote that Coalition military forces had become "even more inadequate" because of the "emergence of a second front: Shi'a death squads linked to militants and the Iraqi National Police."

As for reforming the Iraqi Army, White warned that its units "are capable, as with the police, of contributing to the ongoing ethno-sectarian violence if their use is not carefully handled and monitored."

White called for what he called a "final push" -- an effort to "stabilize Iraq involving a determined military and civilian surge for one year," to be followed, if unsuccessful, by withdrawal. He explained that such a "surge" would consist of at least 50,000 additional U.S. combat troops and roughly 18,500 additional military personnel to advise and monitor Iraqi security forces, combined with greater efforts to reach an accommodation with the Sunni insurgents aimed at removing them from the battlefield.

The proposed additional military effort, however, would be "conditional on Iraqi leadership commitment to a major reduction in militia activity, securing constitutional amendments on oil revenues and federalism, and amnesty for most all mid-level and below Ba'th technocrats, educators, and military personnel."

White repeated in his paper the warning he had made in his oral briefing: even with the additional effort and all conditions fulfilled, "the chances for enduring success probably would remain substantially lower than 50-50." The essence of White's option, therefore, was that, if the "final push" was unsuccessful after one year, U.S. troops would be "redeployed, in part within the region to contain the consequences and to shore up the NATO effort in Afghanistan."

White's paper went to principals on November 13. The final ISG report, however, held to the option of a very large increase in trainers and advisers to the Iraqi army and police, while ruling out both "sustained increases in U.S. troop levels," on the one hand, and setting political conditions and a firm commitment to withdrawal, on the other.

White's pessimism about the possibility that the Iraqi Army can be transformed from its present sectarian character into a real national army is heavily influenced by his knowledge of a similar U.S. program during the Lebanese civil war. "The sad part of it is we tried this before with the Lebanese national army in the early 1980s," White recalls. "We made a major effort to train it up and create a new model Lebanese army. But most of the units reverted to their previous sectarian alignments."

At least some of the Study Group's principals were shocked to hear White's assessment of the Iraqi army as more likely to be a sectarian force than one that would help to suppress sectarian violence. He recalls an exchange with ISG members Chuck Robb and Sandra Day O'Connor last summer on the implications of the army's Shiite sectarian makeup. "They were appalled," he says. "Robb asked how we could fix this. O'Connor said if this thing is so badly flawed, we would need to come up with new Iraqi divisions." But she was dismayed when told that the creation of army divisions with an appropriate sectarian balance could take years. Later, White observed O'Connor shaking her head and muttering to herself, "Bad … bad."

In the end, this group of political leaders apparently felt it had to offer the administration and public something positive and hopeful. In doing so, the ISG members ignored what was probably the savviest advice it had encountered on what they could expect a surge in training and military advising, by itself, to accomplish.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His most recent book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

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