In Iraq, are there any good options left?

Military commanders believe everything turns on what they've so far failed to do.

Published October 23, 2006 1:03PM (EDT)

If the president's meeting with military commanders Saturday yielded no big new plans for the war in Iraq, maybe that's because there aren't any to be had. Short of a massive increase or decrease in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq -- neither of which the White House is about to endorse, at least not before an election in which there are a lot of candidates arguing for some variation of "stay the course" -- it seems that there's not terribly much anyone in Washington can do to make things better over there.

The last big tactical shift came over the summer, when the military shifted troops to Baghdad in the hopes that it could stem the violence there. It didn't work. Fifty-two Iraqis were killed in and around Baghdad during the first week of the U.S. military's efforts to secure the area in August. Last week, 143 Iraqis were killed in the same area. Yes, even more might have been killed if the U.S. hadn't stepped up its work in Baghdad. But the idea was to reduce the death toll, not slow its increase.

So what's next? As "Cobra II" author Michael Gordon reports in the New York Times today, there really isn't much of a next, at least not within the narrow parameters the president is willing to consider. "Military commanders here see no plausible alternative to their bedrock strategy to clear violence-ridden neighborhoods of militias, insurgents and arms caches, hold them with Iraqi and American security forces, and then try to win over the population with reconstruction projects, underwritten mainly by the Iraqi government," Gordon writes. "There is no fall-back plan that the generals are holding in their hip pocket. This is it."

As Gordon explains, no larger vision for Iraq -- no flourishing democracy, no sectarian division of the country, nothing -- can come about if Baghdad winds up looking like Beirut. "Baghdad security may not be a sufficient condition for a more stable Iraq, but it is a necessary condition for any alternative plan that does not simply abandon the Iraqis to their fate," he says.

In some sense, of course, the Bush team has already abandoned Iraqis to their fate, or at least to the fate that the war created for them. Donald Rumsfeld went into the war with not enough troops and no plan for what would come next, and the administration's entire post-Saddam strategy has revolved around the notion that someday, somehow Iraqis would be able to clean up their own country. That day is still a long way off, and Americans don't see it getting a whole lot closer. According to a Newsweek poll released over the weekend, only 25 percent of Americans now believe that the United States is "making progress" in Iraq. Sixty-five percent say it isn't.

So what are U.S. troops still doing in Iraq? How much longer should they stay before the president admits either that his overall goal isn't attainable or that he needs to send many, many more troops in order to make it happen? Seven more U.S. troops were killed over the weekend, bringing the U.S. death toll to 86 for the month, 2,799 for the entire war.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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