There isn't one plan, but several, each containing various options for Army General George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq. Pentagon officials acknowledged last week that the number of U.S. troops could be cut to 100,000 by the end of 2006. But Casey will face two "decision points" next year--one in March, when he can fully assess the effects of the Dec. 15 election, the other in June, when major U.S. units have to be told if they will deploy.Presumably this also depends on what the new Iraqi government wants, which may be what comes up in that March "decision point." I have no idea whether it's even possible to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next four years, or whether a "contingency option"—sending more troops in if civil war breaks out?—is at all feasible. I assume a lot of soldiers would have to go back for fourth or fifth tours, with all the bad effects that will have. Still, Time doesn't make it sound like a massive drawdown is in the cards, though admittedly it's like reading tea leaves here.
At this stage, almost no one is talking about a rapid, large-scale troop drawdown. Inside the Pentagon, officers privately caution that troop levels could even rise if Iraqi security forces don't shape up as expected, if the insurgency grows more fierce or--of greatest concern--if civil strife evolves into full-fledged civil war. In fact, a senior Pentagon official tells TIME that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his planners last week to make sure they have a contingency option if things go very badly in Iraq next year.
Even if the U.S. does decide to withdraw troops, it won't simply flee. Washington is spending millions on fortifying a few Iraqi bases for the long haul. "The challenge for us is, what is the right balance--not to be too present but also not to be underpresent. This will require constant calibration," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad tells TIME. Indeed, last August, Army chief of staff Peter Schoomaker said that as many as 100,000 Army troops could remain in Iraq for four years.