Times Staff Writers

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.”

John D. Waghelstein, an El Salvador veteran who teaches counterinsurgency strategies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said the large number of troops in Iraq had weakened U.S. influence with the Iraqis by putting American prestige on the line.

“When you’re dealing with a host country, less is better,” Waghelstein said. “You lose leverage when you’re committed to the degree we’re committed.”

Waghelstein, who consulted with Petraeus on military strategy before the general left for Iraq, recalled a dispute he had in the early 1980s with Rafael Flores Lima, then-head of the Salvadoran military, who was balking at U.S. demands that his soldiers end human rights abuses.

“He said, ‘You know, Wag, this is your war too,’ ” Waghelstein recalled. “I said, ‘Do you know how long it will take me to put 55 people on an airplane?’ And I got this look -- and it was the beginning of their realization that we weren’t so committed that we couldn’t get out.”

The El Salvador example has been used by Abizaid supporters to shore up their case that he may have been correct in his insistence on handing responsibility to Iraqi forces. Some within the military believe that Abizaid has been made a scapegoat for U.S. shortcomings in Iraq.

“At some point you have to take the hand off the bicycle seat,” and leave responsibility to Iraqis, another Pentagon official said. “I believe an inordinate amount of blame has been directed at Abizaid, besmirching his character.”

One Pentagon advisor said the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their planners were enthusiastic about moving to an advisor-heavy effort.

“There is a broad consensus about what the right longer-term strategy is, both because it is sustainable in the United States and because we are not going to win this for [the Iraqis],” the advisor said. “You might provide some temporary aid, but no one I know thinks the surge is the answer.”

Skeptics caution that applying the wrong lessons from El Salvador could be disastrous.

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations argued that the El Salvador model would not work in Iraq. El Salvador was a fight against a Marxist insurgency, he pointed out. Because Iraq is a civil war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Bush administration plans built around training the Shiite-dominated government forces are bound to fail, he said.

“They are absolutely committed to the idea that the way we are going to get out of here is hand it off to an indigenous military, and that is just misguided,” said Biddle, a critic of the Iraq Study Group who has advised the White House on Iraq strategy. He advocates either a complete withdrawal or a troop buildup, not a middle ground.

Barry McCaffrey, a retired general who also has consulted with the White House, said the El Salvador war may hold some lessons for the United States in how both sides of a conflict might be pushed to cut a deal. But McCaffrey said it would be a mistake to have military advisors in Iraq without significant numbers of combat troops.

“You can see hints of support for withdrawing combat troops coming out of the military,” McCaffrey said. “But if we pull out our combat forces, and leave a substantial U.S. presence in Iraq, we are asking for a humiliation the likes of which we haven’t seen since Custer’s battle.”

But Sepp argued that bringing combat forces home and allowing American advisors to face such danger alongside Iraqi forces was the only way for the U.S. to gain credibility in Iraq and ultimately succeed.

“They need to live on the same compound; they need to eat the same food,” Sepp said. “You need to be seen to be sharing the same dangers.”