No Easy Way Out

Today’s Times features a thoughtful article about the presidential campaign and the struggle in Iraq. It’s by Michael Gordon, who has spent a great deal of time there ever since the beginning of the war, and who undoubtedly has a better understanding of the “facts on the ground” than any of the candidates (not to mention high-falutin’ bloggers and commenters).

Gordon writes:

Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who regularly visits Iraq, put it this way: “You have to grade all the candidates between a D-minus and an F-plus. The Republicans are talking about this as if we have won and as if Iraq is the center of the war on terrorism, rather than Afghanistan and Pakistan and a host of movements in 50 other countries.

“The Democrats talk about this as if the only problem is to withdraw and the difference is over how quickly to do it.”

On the ground with the troops, it is clear that a major military change was in fact made in Iraq last year — not so much the addition of 30,000 troops, but the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy for using them. That strategy made the protection of Iraq’s population a paramount goal in an effort to drive a wedge between the people and the militants and to encourage Iraqis to provide intelligence that the American military forces need to track down an elusive foe.

But counterinsurgency is inherently a long-term proposition, and that assumption has driven much of the military thinking about the future, even as it heightens the political debate at home.

“Unless you are suppressing insurgents the way the Romans did — creating a desert and calling it peace — it typically can take the better part of a decade or more,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The paradox,” he added, “is that counterinsurgency requires convincing the Iraqis of our staying power. At the same time, the American people view success in terms of how quickly we can pull out.”

The American military plans to return by mid-July to 15 combat brigades, the total in Iraq before the troop buildup. No decisions have been made on further reductions, but American officers foresee a continued need for American combat forces and generally anticipate a more gradual shifting of responsibilities to Iraqi forces than many of the candidates — a reflection of caution they say is warranted by years of sobering experience.

“It is about mitigating risk and not repeating mistakes of the past,” said one senior American officer in Iraq, referring to this cautious approach.

It’s a good article, and you should read it. Here it is.

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