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For five years Washington-based officials and pundits have repeatedly made the mistake of predicting that the next six or 12 months in Iraq would be decisive. Under the hardheaded leadership of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker such talk has been banned: "Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those phrases," Petraeus recently declared.
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Yet, for once, saying that the next six to 12 months will win or lose the war just might be right.
That's not because Iraqis have suddenly developed the capacity to meet the unrealistic timelines drawn up in Washington ever since 2003 - when the Pentagon planned to reduce U.S. troops to a skeleton force of 30,000 within six months of the capture of Baghdad. On the contrary, Petraeus and Crocker have spent the past year attempting to drive home the point that the U.S. goal of a stable, democratizing Iraq, if it can be achieved at all, would require an American commitment well beyond any of the timetables discussed in Washington - despite the remarkable success of this year's military surge.
So the next six to 12 months are not crucial because of what will happen in Iraq - where, at best, violence will continue to decline incrementally, while Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds make painful and partial progress toward political settlements. The test will come in the United States - where first the Pentagon and the White House, and then the country, will decide whether to invest enough resources in Iraq to keep the hope of eventual success alive.
The number of American soldiers in Iraq started coming down last month. By July it will have dropped from the peak of 180,000 it reached briefly in November to 130,000, or 15 brigades, the force level before the surge. The Pentagon has until March to judge how Iraqis react to the initial withdrawals - whether violence in volatile places such as Anbar province remains low or escalates again as U.S. troops depart. Then another decision will be made, on whether to reduce the force by five more brigades, to a total of about 100,000 troops, by the end of 2008.
This decision ought to be based entirely on whether Iraq's progress can continue with an American force 40 percent smaller than it was at the surge's peak. But external politics is already intruding: Gen. George Casey, the architect of the failed U.S. military strategy in Iraq pre-Petraeus, is already pushing for the full reduction, on the grounds that the Army needs to reduce its exposure in Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose strategic preoccupation has been arriving at a force level in Iraq that could win bipartisan acceptance in Washington, has said publicly that he'd like to hit the 100,000 target.
And what if 100,000 troops won't be enough to maintain the fragile lull in the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites or the return of something like normal life in Baghdad? In all likelihood, President Bush will have to choose between the competing priorities of Petraeus and the Pentagon.
Let's say Bush backs Petraeus. Then a major subject of the fall presidential campaign will be whether a large U.S. combat force should continue to support the Iraqi government after Bush leaves office. So far, all of the major Republican candidates are saying they are committed to success in Iraq - which presumably means that, as long as the strategy seems to be working, they will continue to deploy the troops Petraeus and his successors deem necessary.
The three leading Democrats, in contrast, continue to describe Iraq as an irremediable failure, despite the obvious comeback of the past year. While they have refused to commit to removing all U.S. forces from Iraq by 2013, they have said that they would quickly withdraw all combat forces. Barring near-miraculous Iraqi progress in the next 13 months, that would almost certainly invite the eruption of the civil war that almost all serious observers - from Crocker to the CIA - have warned would be the result of a quick withdrawal.
In a telephone conversation with Washington journalists last week, Crocker said that Iraqis he's spoken with aren't terribly worried so far by the reduction of American forces: "I have not detected a great deal of nervousness that we are simply going to pull the plug and allow this to spiral back downward," he said. "At the most fundamental level there is a view (in Iraq) that things are moving in the right direction; that security is improving; that the surge has worked; that Iraqi forces are more numerous and more capable; and that therefore why on earth would we abandon a winning proposition?"
Why, indeed. But then, Iraqis are judging politics in Washington from a great distance, and assuming that Americans will act sensibly. More than once, Americans in Washington have made the same assumptions about Iraqis - and been proved wrong.