Iraq: When Can We Go Home?

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American troops in Baghdad search for two missing U.S. soldiers and their Humvee

President Bush faced a call this week from a senior member of his own party's foreign policy establishment to "level" with the American people about Iraq. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar was not harping on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction; he was urging the president to give the electorate a more realistic picture of the scale and duration of the U.S. occupation mission in Iraq, and to impress on them the importance of staying the course. Fresh from a visit to Baghdad, Lugar warned: "The idea that we will be in just as long as we need to and not a day more — we've got to get over that rhetoric. It is rubbish! We're going to be there a long time."

A similar warning came from Thomas Pickering, who had served the first President Bush as UN ambassador and had headed up a Council on Foreign Relations study on Iraq which concluded that the U.S. mission had lacked "vision and strategy." Pickering, too, urged Bush to make clear that the current U.S. deployment of some 200,000 troops in and around Iraq would have to be maintained for a long time to come. Or, as General John Abizaid, who will assume command of the Iraq mission from the retiring General Tommy Franks next month, put it in congressional testimony this week, "for the foreseeable future."

For obvious domestic political reasons, the Bush Administration going into the war had downplayed the scale and duration of a post-war occupation mission. When then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told legislators that such a mission would require several hundred thousand U.S. troops, his assessment had been immediately dismissed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz explained that "I am reasonably certain that (the Iraqi people) will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." Six weeks ago, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was still suggesting the U.S. force in Iraq could be reduced to 30,000 by the end of the year. But the prevailing assessment in Washington appears to be shifting to the idea of a figure closer to Shinseki's.

The changing assessment in Washington is being spurred by the realization that the security problem confronting U.S. and British troops in Iraq is not simply maintaining order in the face of looting and lawlessness, but instead that coalition forces are facing what appears to be an escalating guerrilla insurgency. And that means the occupation mission is costing not only American treasure — currently an estimated $3 billion a month — but also American lives. U.S. forces come under attack every day in Iraq, and they have suffered combat casualties at a rate upward of one death every other day. Six British MPs were killed near Basra on Tuesday and eight were wounded in a second incident; a U.S. Marine was killed en route to help ambushed comrades Wednesday; two U.S. troops were reported missing overnight Thursday in Baghdad, and later in the day Centcom announced that a Special Operations soldier had been killed and eight wounded by hostile fire during an operation southwest of Baghdad. Two Iraqis employed to help restore Baghdad's electricity supply were among those killed in a rocket attack on a U.S. convoy Thursday, while saboteurs blew up two important oil pipelines earlier in the week, apparently recognizing their ability to disrupt power supplies by targeting some of the country's 4,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines.

The coalition body count is mounting steadily in the postwar insurgency, despite two large sweep operations north of Baghdad last weekend designed to eliminate resistance. U.S. commander have begun to acknowledge that they're facing an organized insurgency, blaming remnants of the old regime and jihadists from other Arab countries who had come to Iraq to fight the U.S. More worrying are the attacks that have occurred this week south of Baghdad, in predominantly Shiites areas. An insurgency confined to the Sunni minority is more easily contained than one whose base extends to the Shiite majority.

Average daily temperatures in Baghdad now are upward of 110 degrees, and U.S. troops who had hoped to be home in time for July 4th cookouts instead find themselves facing an enemy indistinguishable from the (often hostile) civilian population. And the enemy's strategy is to avoid ever presenting himself as a visible target, hoping to sap American morale and alienate the U.S. from the local population through hit and run attacks, and sabotage of reconstruction efforts.

Washington is hoping to lighten the load with an infusion of some 20,000 troops slated to be sent — in small contingents, mostly at U.S. expense — from those NATO countries that supported the war. But the number that actually arrive in Iraq may shrink somewhat if it turns out they're headed into a counterinsurgency mission rather than a more pedestrian peacekeeping affair. This week's British casualties, in what had ostensibly been the most tranquil part of Iraq, won't help Washington's recruitment efforts. Britain's own force levels in Iraq had been reduced from 45,000 during the war to around 15,000, although following the latest incident the government faces conflicting pressures to both increase and reduce its exposure in Iraq.

More robust contributions have been asked of India and Pakistan, but while the leaders of both countries are inclined to comply, both face strong domestic opposition. The U.S. is also embarking on a plan to train and equip a new Iraqi national army comprising some 60,000 men, although that project will likely take years to complete. In the short term, despite local recruitment and the planned deployment of more foreign troops, most, if not all of the heavy lifting will remain the preserve of the U.S. and British forces.

Iraq, of course, is not the only peacekeeping mission requiring the attention of the U.S. and its allies. Some 11,000 coalition troops remain deployed in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while peacekeeping duties are the preserve of the 4,800 foreign troops grouped under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force, whose small numbers confine its work to the capital, Kabul. A number of U.S. legislators and South Asia experts are quietly warning that the security situation there is in danger of unraveling in the face of Taliban resurgence and internecine warlord conflicts, and that turning the situation around requires either expanding the terms of the U.S. deployment to stabilizing Afghanistan, or else significantly expanding ISAF. (ISAF has one advantage in that it has drawn on major troop contributions from NATO members that had opposed the Iraq war — Turkey, France and Germany.)

The U.S. exit strategy from Iraq has always been to install a stable, friendly Iraqi government whose oil revenues would give it financial independence and withdraw the bulk of the force that had overthrown Saddam's regime. But the scale of the challenge of remaking Iraq forced Washington to adapt its plans. When U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer arrived to take the reins from the hapless Jay Garner he chose to keep political authority in U.S. hands rather than betting prematurely on any Iraqi group. To the chagrin of most of Iraq's many political factions, Bremer has put talk of a transitional government in the deep freeze, and instead plans to draw Iraqis into a much slower process of consultation over a new constitution. That, of course, leaves the occupation authority without an Iraqi face, which further inflames nationalist passions — but managing an occupation mission such as Iraq invariably throws up mostly lesser-evil choices.

It was clear from the moment Bremer took over that the process of achieving the Bush administration's political objectives in post-Saddam Iraq might take years of patient nation-building. But what has become equally clear, in recent weeks, is that it may also require winning a second war, of counterinsurgency.