As the war in Iraq grinds on and the number of U.S. troops remains stubbornly fixed at 140,000, murmurs of dissatisfaction at home become louder and more widespread. Republican members of Congress have joined Democrats in questioning how much longer the troops will have to stay. Colonels and generals estimate two years, perhaps longer. Polls indicate an increasing public unease with the war.
For his part, President Bush said last month he is "pleased with the progress" in Iraq, citing its national elections in January and the ongoing training of its military. Yet Baghdad experiences a car bombing just about every day; in all of 2004, there were 25. The elections may have represented progress; the violence does not.
The president's assessment represents either ignorance or optimism -- perhaps both. But it is hardly helpful to recite yet again, more than two years after the war began, the sorry litany of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq. What's needed is a clear timetable of goals and a specific set of consequences.
The Bush administration should publicly set a target for the number of Iraqi soldiers and police who will be trained, equipped and capable of defending their country by July 1, 2006. That means troops able to protect their positions and go on the offensive against their enemies, with enough guns, bullets and tanks to do the job. If the objective is not reached, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should be fired, along with the top U.S. military commanders in Iraq.
No one has been held accountable for the blunders, from the bad intelligence before the war to the failure to provide sufficient troops during the conflict and since. Fixing responsibility is long overdue.
This is preferable to a precise timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, as two Republicans and three Democrats in the House called for in a resolution introduced Thursday. That could encourage the insurgents simply to wait it out. And definite, public targets allow for more accountability than the current strategy, which amounts to "when they're ready, we'll come home." The quote is from Bush, and the "they" he is referring to is the Iraqi army.
If it all sounds familiar, that's because it is. A year ago, on the eve of a handover of government from a U.S.-led authority to a U.S.-installed transitional Iraqi regime, this page said that once the Iraqis had a new constitution, an elected government and sufficient security forces, the U.S. should withdraw its troops. Today, the attempt to write a constitution proceeds fitfully; on Thursday, Shiites and Sunnis reached a compromise that may allow the Iraqi National Assembly to meet its Aug. 15 deadline. There is an elected government, though it is supposed to be replaced after the constitution is written.
As for security forces, the record is abysmal. It is clear that Iraqis are years away from protecting themselves from fellow citizens and foreign invaders alike.
Meanwhile, more than 1,700 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, more than $200 billion has been spent, and the insurgency remains strong. A Gallup poll released Sunday found that 59% of Americans said some or all troops should be withdrawn. In April 2004, the figure was 37%.
Some who supported toppling Saddam Hussein also are wondering when the administration will face reality. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) went to Iraq several weeks ago and said that the administration has to reflect what generals with their boots on the ground are saying: U.S. troops will be needed there for perhaps two more years.
Biden, Weldon and others in Congress will have to make their own judgments about the validity of the numbers the administration produces. The administration says about 170,000 soldiers and police have been trained, and next summer's target is 270,000. But U.S. forces in Iraq, and experts who have visited there, laugh at those claims. Too many Iraqi troops have deserted, been overrun or are so poorly equipped that they should not be counted as trained forces. There is no lack of interest among Iraqis, who brave car bombs and rocket attacks to stand in line and enlist. The task is turning the enlistees into soldiers.
The United States will not be alone in training the troops. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said last week that it will open a base near Baghdad to train 1,000 Iraqi officers each year. The front-runner to become Germany's next chancellor says Germany will train Iraqis; Biden says the French have told him they've offered training, but the U.S. has not taken them up on it.
Determining the strength of the insurgency is difficult. Last July, Pentagon officials were estimating a core force of 5,000, but the U.S. majors and colonels in Baghdad, Tikrit, Fallouja and elsewhere estimated the figure at three times that many. Not knowing the strength of the insurgency makes it more difficult to know how many counterinsurgent troops are needed. It may well be that the U.S. will not need to train as many troops as some claim; many commanders say that a relatively small number of crack troops would be better than a larger force of inept fighters. As for police, one rule of thumb is five to 10 officers for every 1,000 in population, meaning 100,000 to 200,000 for Iraq.
Guerrilla attacks have forced the U.S. to shift money from reconstruction to security and have crippled progress on repairing electrical lines, water plants and sewage treatment facilities. That has increased the misery for Iraqis. A May report by the U.N. Development Program and the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation presented a list of complaints about a lack of utilities and a disastrous roster of infant mortality, malnutrition and injuries.
The inability of Iraqi forces to stop the carnage has kept U.S. forces in Iraq longer than the Bush administration planned or hoped. The extended deployments have made Army recruiting tougher and weakened the Army Reserve and National Guard. The ability to respond to crises elsewhere has been diminished.
U.S. involvement in Iraq, at such great cost in American lives and dollars, cannot remain as ill-defined and open-ended as it is now. The administration must set explicit benchmarks to determine when U.S. forces can leave. Bush should be honest with the American people and the Iraqis. That requires setting realistic goals and holding people responsible for them.