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Timing, Tactics on Iraq War Disputed
Top Bush Officials Criticize Generals' Conventional Views

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 1, 2002; Page A01

An increasingly contentious debate is underway within the Bush administration over how to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with the civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers of troops and military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious approaches that would employ far larger forces.

Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are pushing most forcefully for aggressively confronting Hussein, arguing that he presents a serious threat and that time is not on the side of the United States, according to several people involved in the closely held discussions.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet are asking skeptical questions about a military campaign, especially about the aftermath of what most in the administration assume would be a fairly swift victory, according to those taking part in the deliberations.

Much of the senior uniformed military, with the notable exception of some top Air Force and Marine generals, opposes going to war anytime soon, a stance that is provoking frustration among civilian officials in the Pentagon and in the White House. In addition, some suspect that Powell's stance has produced an unusual alliance between the State Department and the uniformed side of the Pentagon, elements of the government that more often seem to oppose each other in foreign policy debates.

What is not being debated, officials said, is the ultimate goal of removing Hussein from power, an outcome that President Bush has repeatedly said he is determined to pursue. But how to do that still has not been decided. Officials stressed that the administration is still early in the process of discussing a variety of approaches to attacking Iraq and that no formal plan has been put before the president.

Some top military officials argue that the policy of aggressive containment -- through "no-fly" zones, a naval enforcement of sanctions and the nearby presence of 20,000 U.S. military personnel -- has kept Hussein from becoming an immediate threat. Bush has also approved a covert operation to try to dislodge Hussein from power, working in part with Iraqi opposition groups. The questions being debated now, officials said, are whether to move against Hussein with overt military action and, if so, when and how.

The lack of answers to those questions is producing new stresses within the administration, some defense experts said. Two people involved in the debate -- one inside the Pentagon, one outside it -- said Cheney and others at the White House are growing concerned that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders have fought Rumsfeld and other civilian hawks to a standstill. "I'm picking up a concern that people at the top of the Pentagon are overwhelmed," said one Republican foreign policy expert.

He and others interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition that their names not be used, citing an atmosphere in which information about planning on Iraq is being tightly held in the administration, especially at the Pentagon.

Making his case, Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that the situation with Hussein will not improve. "Over time, the economic sanctions weaken, the diplomatic effort seems to get a little tired, the progress that he's been able to make in proliferating the terrorist states all across the globe is a serious one," he said.

Rumsfeld said there are "differing views about what one ought to do" but that the relationship between the top civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon is close. "The discussions that take place, the process that's been established, have been working as well as I have ever seen," he said.

There are deep differences of opinion about how the debate is likely to end, even among people intimately involved in the process, officials said. Some think the military's concerns will put the brakes on those advocating a direct confrontation with Hussein, while others say the president has been so clear about his determination to remove the Iraqi president from power that he cannot back down.

One advocate of confronting Hussein said he worries that the determined opposition of senior military leaders ultimately will dissuade Bush. "You can't force things onto people who don't want to do it, and the three- and four-star Army generals don't want to do it," he said. "I think this will go back and forth, and back and forth, until it's time for Bush to run for reelection."

But several others predicted that the military's objections will be overridden. "I'm absolutely convinced the president will settle on a war plan that brings about regime change," the GOP foreign policy specialist said.

Ultimately, noted a senior administration official, "the military has limited influence in this administration."

Some civilians in the debate worry that military planners consistently call for more troops in every plan because they lack an appreciation of how technological advances have improved the military's offensive capabilities since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. "The issue is, our capability to do severe damage to the Iraqis is very different today than it was 10 years ago," said Dennis Bovin, a member of the Defense Science Board and other Pentagon advisory groups. "We have a lot more options available than ever before."

In the debate, civilians have urged military planners to consider approaches radically different from the half-million-strong force that the United States deployed against Iraq during the Gulf War. The current favorite of those backing a smaller, faster approach is a lightning strike involving narrowly focused airstrikes combined with a sprint of armored vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad. The thinking is that such a movement of just a few days would not permit Hussein to hide his forces in cities or to trundle his artillery pieces to the northern bank of the Euphrates and then to fire shells, possibly including chemical weapons, at U.S. forces trying to cross that broad river.

In addition, several other "bolt from the blue" approaches are being discussed behind closed doors and studied in war games. "There are a lot of out-of-the-box options, very few of which have gotten into the public eye," said one Pentagon consultant. The Special Operations Command in particular has suggested some "tactically innovative" approaches that combine "precision strike and information dominance," said a Pentagon official.

Yet no matter how innovative the suggestions, the planners at Central Command seem to weigh them down with conventional thinking that would prolong both the preparations for any attack and the war itself, according to people involved in the process. That command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, is headed by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who has a reputation in the Pentagon of being extremely cautious.

"They've had these ideas for months, but they keep on going back to Franks with them, and he says, 'No, no, you need three heavy divisions and an air assault division' " -- that is, a backup force of about 60,000 troops -- as insurance in case a smaller attack falters, one defense official said. The overall force considered in one plan earlier this summer would have involved around 100,000 troops, he said.

In follow-up meetings, pointed questioning by senior civilian officials cut the overall number of the notional attack force to 68,000, the official added. Then, he said, "two weeks later, the Army has pushed it back up to 120,000."

The apparent impasse is causing extreme frustration with Franks and with the Army among some administration officials.

At a July 10 meeting of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, one of the subjects discussed was how to overcome the military reluctance to plan innovatively for an attack on Iraq. "What was discussed was the problem with the services," said one defense expert who participated in the meeting. His conclusion: "You have to have a few heads roll, especially in the Army."

People involved in the planning said the reason so many different plans and variations have surfaced -- from a "Gulf War Lite" force involving 250,000 troops to an "Afghan War Redux" that combines a relative handful of Special Forces units, airstrikes and Iraqi rebels -- is that wildly different assumptions are being made about the nature of the war.

"There's obviously a lot going on about how to do this," said one senior administration official. "There's no right way or wrong way. It's difficult because you don't know which countries you can count on or what the consequences in the region would be."

The first major variable is the geopolitical context in which the attack would occur. Some military planners believe that the U.S. military ultimately would be able to use bases in nearly every country in the area, except Iran and Syria. Others predict that the United States would be far more constrained.

The second area has to do with the degree of military risk. There are major disagreements, officials said, especially about whether the Iraqi military as a whole would fight or just the Republican Guard, Hussein's most elite and loyal force.

Some of those advocating a smaller, faster attack think that it would be a mistake to target the entire Iraqi military, which they believe has elements that would either decline to fight or even join the U.S. side. "If the Republican Guards are the only viable fighting force, and the regular Iraqi army won't perform, you could really do a lot of the necessary damage from the air," said a Pentagon adviser involved in the discussions.

Finally, there is an extraordinary range of opinion about what burden the U.S. military and government would be required to carry in Iraq after a victory. How long would U.S. troops have to stay, how many would be needed and whether they would be joined by peacekeepers from other countries are all being debated. Most important, perhaps, is the question of whether the Iraqi people would welcome the arrival of U.S. forces -- or oppose it.

All those calculations are complicated by the fact that the nature of the war -- its scope, duration and intensity -- will help shape the mood of postwar Iraq.

"Downing's opposition was to a long, destructive campaign from the ground and air that would hurt the post-campaign environment," said one military planner, referring to retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who recently left a White House position, some say because of his unhappiness with the planning for Iraq.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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