What is Plan C?
Bush may have a few months to test his new Iraq strategy, but he'll need a fallback-and the options are scary
A carefully orchestrated pullout might avoid the helicopter-evacuation-from-the-embassy-roof debacle of Vietnam, but the U.S. presence has become one of the few checks on violence in Iraq. Pulling out risks turning what amounts to a civil war into a larger, regional battle. "When we invaded, we created a failed state that has absolutely no capacity," says Kenneth Pollack, a former Persian Gulf analyst at the CIA. "It is simply ridiculous to suggest that the government could hold the country together without massive American assistance."
The U.S. intelligence community warned in its recent estimate on Iraq that a rapid withdrawal could lead to even more violence, as well as to the collapse of the Iraqi government and the intervention of one or more of Iraq's neighbors. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have warned that they might be forced to defend their interests in Iraq, while Iran already has a significant economic and intelligence presence in the country. The ultimate fear: the specter of a broad Sunni-Shiite confrontation in the oil-rich Middle East.
A carefully phased withdrawal could mitigate some of the risk of collapse, but any effort to continue training and sustaining Iraqi security forces would require a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq. The Iraqi military is "going to need aviation support, tanks-and be backed up by U.S. military units," says retired Gen. Joseph Hoar, former head of Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East. "The Iraq Army has demonstrated, just in the past two weeks, that they don't have the ability to fight the big fight against a determined enemy." In the most optimistic scenario, it will take several years for the Iraqi security forces to become self-sustaining. Fewer troops may mean fewer casualties, but the increased violence sure to follow could cripple the Iraqi government.
Accelerate the existing trend of dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas; establish a loose federation, tied together by oil revenues
This scenario, backed by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden and others, says that Washington should simply accept that Iraqis are already voting with their feet. The sectarian death squads in Baghdad and other mixed cities have already effectively "cleansed" many of Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods. Several million Iraqis have either fled to Syria or Jordan or sought refuge in neighborhoods dominated by their own sect. "I see that as the only way out," says retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training Iraqi security forces from 2003 to 2004. "We're dealing with 1,000 years of Sunni-Shiite divide."
Iraq is, however, a long way from being truly divided. Shiite- and Sunni-dominated areas remain interspersed throughout large portions of Iraq, and Baghdad in particular. Simply trying to draw formal dividing lines could throw millions of Iraqis out of their homes-and even provoke an all-out civil war. While Kurds would be delighted by a deeper partition, the Sunnis, who fear losing their share of Iraq's oil wealth, and powerful Shiite leaders like firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, fiercely oppose it. Kurds and Arabs both claim the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk. And nobody has a good answer for the future of Baghdad.