WASHINGTON — American military planners have begun plotting a fallback strategy for Iraq that includes a gradual withdrawal of forces and a renewed emphasis on training Iraqi fighters in case the current troop buildup fails or is derailed by Congress.
Such a strategy, based in part on the U.S. experience in El Salvador in the 1980s, is still in the early planning stages and would be adjusted to fit the outcome of the current surge in troop levels, according to military officials and Pentagon consultants who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing future plans.
But a drawdown of forces would be in line with comments to Congress by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last month that if the "surge" fails, the backup plan would include moving troops "out of harm's way." Such a plan also would be close to recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates was a member before his appointment as Defense Department chief.
A strategy following the El Salvador model would be a dramatic break from President Bush's current policy of committing large numbers of U.S. troops to aggressive counterinsurgency tactics, but it has influential backers within the Pentagon.
"This part of the world has an allergy against foreign presence," said a senior Pentagon official, adding that chances of success with a large U.S. force may be diminishing. "You have a window of opportunity that is relatively short. Your ability to influence this with a large U.S. force eventually gets to the point that it is self-defeating."
The new round of planning is taking place in an atmosphere of extraordinary tension within the Pentagon, which is grappling with a war about to enter its fifth year and going poorly on the ground while straining U.S. forces worldwide.
At the same time, the war has created divisions within the Pentagon. Some support the new commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who advocates using more American forces to protect Baghdad neighborhoods, whereas others back the position of Gen. John P. Abizaid, the retiring commander for the Mideast, who favored handing responsibility more quickly to Iraqis.
A shift away from the buildup and toward a more advisor-based strategy would bring the administration more in line with the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel created by Congress to make recommendations on the war. The group called for a gradual reduction in U.S. combat forces. Kalev I. Sepp, a key advisor to the panel and an El Salvador veteran, was instrumental in getting the commission to back an expanded advisory effort.
"That's exactly what I proposed to the Iraq Study Group, and that's exactly what ended up in the report," said Sepp, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
The El Salvador case study contrasts with the soldier-heavy example of Vietnam and the current buildup in Iraq. In El Salvador, the U.S. sent 55 Green Berets to aid the Salvadoran military in its fight against rebels from 1981 to 1992, when peace accords were signed.
Years after, the U.S. role in El Salvador remains controversial. Some academics have argued that the U.S. military turned a blind eye to government-backed death squads, or even aided them. But former advisors and military historians argue that the U.S. gradually professionalized the Salvadoran army and curbed the government's abuses.
El Salvador veterans and experts have been pushing for the model it provides of a smaller, less visible U.S. advisory presence.
In recent congressional hearings and in private Pentagon meetings, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made several references to the El Salvador campaign. The senior Pentagon official said Pace's repeated references were a signal that in the chairman's view, success in Iraq may not depend on more combat troops.
Although Pentagon officials said the effort in Iraq would have to be much larger than the 55 advisors used in El Salvador, that model has influenced planning. Officials note that they are thinking about using thousands of advisors -- although not tens of thousands -- in the next phase of Iraq strategy.
There are 141,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. The buildup now underway will add 21,500 combat troops and several thousand more support troops.
There is a "sweet spot we are trying to hit," the senior official said. "We need enough American presence to ensure [Iraq] doesn't go down, without paying the price of a large U.S. profile that then triggers all the downsides."
Some current and former military officers note that the United States has a much better track record at fighting insurgencies with small numbers of advisors than it does with large campaigns, like Vietnam or Iraq.
"We haven't won too many of these things with big efforts," said a former military officer who has advised the Pentagon. "But we have done all right with the supporting efforts."