President George W. Bush is being urged by Congress to alter course in Iraq by September if not sooner, his new report shows that the U.S. military strategy will take many more months to meet its goals.
The report cited no specific timeframe, but its language suggests what some U.S. commanders have hinted at recently: The troop reinforcements that Bush ordered in January may need to remain until spring 2008.
That is a military calculation at odds with an emerging political consensus in Washington on bringing the troops home soon.
The disconnect between the military and political views on the best way forward is a symptom of four-plus years of setbacks in Iraq - not only missteps by the U.S. government but also by Iraqi political leaders, who have fallen far short of their stated aim of creating a government of national unity.
In the view of some members of Congress - and not just Democrats - the time has long passed for the Iraqis to show that they can parlay U.S.-led military efforts into progress on the political front.
"That government is simply not providing leadership worthy of the considerable sacrifice of our forces, and this has to change immediately," Republican Sen. John Warner said after the White House delivered its war report to Congress on Thursday. Warner was the author of legislation requiring the report.
Hours after the report's release, the House of Representatives, on a 223-201 vote, approved a Democratic measure requiring U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by spring. House Democrats pursued the vote despite a veto threat from Bush.
The president apparently has made the calculation that he can ward off political pressure to change course before the next required progress report, set for mid-September. That's when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, plans to lay out his assessment of whether the counterinsurgency strategy he launched in February is working and recommends to Bush whether to stick with it into the coming year.
By extending troop deployments in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months, the Army has made it possible for Bush to maintain the troop buildup until about April 2008. But if he wanted to go beyond that it would require some even more painful moves by the Army, at the risk of reaching a breaking point.
Although the war is increasingly unpopular, Bush does have support in some prominent quarters for continuing his current military strategy, not only for the remainder of this year but into 2008. John Keane, a retired four-star Army general, said this week that security progress, though slow, is gaining momentum.
"The thought of pulling out now or in a couple of months makes no sense militarily," Keane said.
Between now and September the battle for Baghdad will intensify, likely costing hundreds of American troops' lives, and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be pressured to do more to weed out sectarian influences in the Iraqi security forces and to pass legislation designed to promote reconciliation.
The U.S. casualty rate has increased in recent months, and total U.S. deaths in Iraq since the war began in March 2003 now exceed 3,600.
Petraeus hopes that by September the U.S.-led counteroffensive will have reduced the level of violence enough to create an atmosphere in which political progress can be made, while Iraqi security forces move measurably closer to the point where they can sustain the security gains made by U.S. forces.
"We should expect, however, that AQI will attempt to increase its tempo of attacks as September approaches in an effort to influence U.S domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq," Bush's report said. AQI is an acronym for the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq that U.S. officials say has a small number of fighters but an outsized ability to accelerate sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
At a White House news conference, Bush pleaded for patience, saying that as difficult and painful as the war has become, the consequences of giving up and withdrawing the troops now would be even worse.
His report to Congress acknowledged shortcomings while asserting that the "overall trajectory" of the military and political effort in Iraq "has begun to stabilize, compared to the deteriorating trajectory" in 2006.
Sprinkled through the report are phrases that make clear the administration believes its military strategy is the right one, that it should be given more time and that positive results are at least months away.
- There are encouraging signs that should, "over time," point the way to lower U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
- Meaningful and lasting progress on national reconciliation may require a "sustained period" of reduced violence.
- Pushing "too fast" for reforms to allow former Sunni Baathists to participate more fully in the government could make it harder to achieve reconciliation. Likewise, it said the time is not right to establish amnesty for those insurgents who fought against the government since 2003, although amnesty is a key goal. At the moment, the report said, "a general amnesty program would be counterproductive" because no major armed group has said it is willing to renounce violence and join the government.
- The report listed eight "core objectives" that will be the main focus "over 2007 and into 2008." These included defeating al-Qaida and its supporters and helping Iraqis regain control of Baghdad.