WASHINGTON — Growing numbers of American military officers have begun to privately question a key tenet of U.S. strategy in Iraq -- that setting a hard deadline for troop reductions would strengthen the insurgency and undermine efforts to create a stable state.
The Iraqi government's refusal to take certain measures to reduce sectarian tensions between Sunni Arabs and the nation's Shiite Muslim majority has led these officers to conclude that Iraqis will not make difficult decisions unless they are pushed.
Therefore, they say, the advantages of deadlines may outweigh the drawbacks.
"Deadlines could help ensure that the Iraqi leaders recognize the imperative of coming to grips with the tough decisions they've got to make for there to be progress in the political arena," said a senior Army officer who has served in Iraq. He asked that his name not be used because he did not want to publicly disagree with the stated policy of the president.
Former Pentagon official Kurt Campbell said more officers are calling for deadlines after concluding that the indefinite presence of U.S. forces enables the Shiite-run Iraqi government to avoid making compromises.
"There is a new belief that the biggest problem that we face is that our forces are the sand in the gears creating problems," said Campbell, coauthor of a book on national security policy. "We are making things worse by giving the Iraqis a false sense of security at the governing level."
For months, the Bush administration has been politely prodding the Iraqis on political and security reforms including the sharing of oil revenue, a crackdown on Shiite militias and constitutional changes. The discussions so far have yielded little, prompting experts to question whether the Iraqi government will ever compromise if there is no penalty for failing to make hard choices.
Over the last week, Bush administration officials have spoken about possible timetables for progress in Iraq, but softened their suggestions after talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Although top administration officials are still steering clear of discussing the timing of American troop withdrawals, the officers' comments come alongside public statements by prominent Republicans who have begun talking about the need to establish a date that the U.S. will begin to draw down, whether or not the Iraqi government takes steps toward political compromise.
President Bush and other administration opponents of hard deadlines have argued that telegraphing troop departures would help the insurgents.
Once the U.S. sets a withdrawal date, the Sunni-led guerrillas know how long they must hang on before American troops are gone, the administration has argued.
Opponents of timetables also fear that small drawdowns will unleash public demand for more dramatic withdrawals, allowing violence fomented by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias to erode whatever political advances have been made.
Military officials generally have agreed with the civilian leadership that a deadline would strengthen insurgent and militia groups. But the failure of the Iraqi government to move forward on key political and security measures has left senior military leaders frustrated.
Although U.S. military leaders remain wary of the consequences of imposing deadlines, increasingly officers say they are starting to look more attractive. The shift in opinion is a sign that gridlock in the Iraqi government is seen as a greater threat to achieving stability in Iraq than the insurgency itself.
John Batiste, a retired major general who commanded a division in Iraq and has been critical of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said that setting a date for a drawdown of combat brigades must be considered. Before the deadline, Batiste said, the U.S. also needs to step up its effort to advise and train the Iraqi military and police.
"Holding the Iraqi government accountable is important, and that has everything to do with setting expectations and timelines," Batiste said. "It also has everything to do with doing all we can to ensure they are capable completing the task they are trying to do."
Some officers who have served in Iraq believe that much of the Iraqi government is not functioning effectively. Finding ways to force the sectarian factions to put aside their differences and focus on improving security and basic services must be the top priority in Iraq, these officers say. Without government reform, the Iraqi security forces are unlikely to ever be strong enough to take on the insurgency or the sectarian militias.
"It's basic counterinsurgency," said a military officer who has served in Baghdad and did not want to publicly disagree with the president's stated policy. "You have to have a trusted, capable government."
Some in the military argue that publicizing a timetable for reducing forces is far less damaging to a counterinsurgency campaign than the administration has suggested.