Image: Jim Miklasszewski
By Jim Miklaszewski Chief Pentagon correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/21/2006 9:23:47 AM ET 2006-12-21T14:23:47

WASHINGTON — After an especially violent and deadly year for U.S. forces in Iraq, it seems strange then that one of the top military stories for 2006 wasn't a military story at all. It was the midterm congressional elections.

The American people had spoken with a resounding clarity rarely seen in an off-year election. They not only wanted, they demanded a change of course in Iraq. For the Pentagon too, Iraq managed to suck all the oxygen out of every other issue.

The year that was: 2006

Civil war in Iraq
Violence exploded into a sectarian-driven civil war in Iraq. The presumed al-Qaida bombing of the Shia’s Golden Mosque in Samarra in February set off an explosive round of revenge killings between Shia and Sunnis. Innocent Iraqi civilians were killed in record numbers, often with unspeakable brutality. A United Nations report claimed 3,700 Iraqi civilians were killed in October alone. More than a hundred bodies a day were turning up in the streets of Baghdad. Some experts called it outright genocide. In addition to the dead, more than 1.5 million Iraqis have fled the country.

Reduction of forces?
At the beginning of 2006, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey was actually considering a sizeable reduction in the number of American forces on the ground from 127,000 to as low as 90,000 by the end of the year. But the spike in sectarian violence killed any hopes for an early U.S. withdrawal.

Instead of decreasing, the number of American forces shot up to 142,000. Twenty-thousand U.S. soldiers surged back into Baghdad, the new center of gravity, in what had become a war of retribution between Shia and Sunnis. But as the U.S. death toll rose, the American people lost their stomach for the war. They want our forces out of Iraq.

Rumsfeld out
Throughout 2006 there was a steady political drumbeat demanding accountability for what many saw as the failed U.S. policy in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld became the symbol of everything that went wrong in Iraq. Publicly, a growing number of retired U.S. generals called for Rumsfeld's resignation. Privately, many active duty military felt the same.

Feisty and combative, Rumsfeld had alienated many in Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike were demanding Rumsfeld resign. Renowned as a political infighter, Rumsfeld dug in his heels. Many feared steering a change in course for Iraq would be impossible with Rumsfeld in the driver's seat. He had to go.

Iraq Study Group
The bipartisan Iraq Study group made it official. U.S. strategy in Iraq would have to change. Although some of the specific recommendations were almost immediately dismissed by the White House and the military, the group's report provided an independent impetus and political cover for the Bush administration to change course.

Nuke threat back
Fifteen years after the end of the cold war with the Soviets, the threat of nuclear weapons again became an issue during 2006.

For the first time North Korea conducted an underground test of a nuclear device. If there was any good news it was that the underground blast appeared to be a fizzle. In an earlier missile test, a North Korean long-range Taepodong II missile barely made it off the launchpad before it cartwheeled out of control and self-destructed.  Intelligence analysts said both failures were a serious setback to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and by the end of the year President Kim Jong Il appeared open to the renewal of six-party international talks.

Iran also emerged as a potential nuclear threat with evidence that it now has the capability to enrich uranium.

What to watch in 2007?

A new strategy for Iraq
Iraq will again dominate the issues confronting the Pentagon in 2007. The single most important priority is to develop a new strategy that will allow the U.S. military to at least begin withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. Pentagon officials say that will be the primary focus of the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for the next two years.

‘Do or Die Strategy’
In what one senior military official calls the "Do or Die Strategy," the U.S. would attempt to force the Iraqis to takeover the fight and get U.S. combat forces out of the middle of the civil war.

Under current planning there would actually be a short-term increase in the number of American forces on the ground in Iraq — an additional 20-30,000 troops. Their task will not be to turn up U.S. combat activities but to provide embedded military trainers with Iraqi forces so they can takeover the fight. American combat troops would withdraw from most urban areas, including Baghdad, which would put the responsibility of controlling armed Shia militias squarely on the back of the predominately Shia government.

The ‘other war’
Afghanistan is likely to heat up. Following a resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaida attacks in Afghanistan in 2006, U.S. and NATO-led coalition forces are planning an aggressive offensive against the Taliban in their remote southern strongholds. The U.S. will also keep pressure on neighboring Pakistan to deny the Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens. And what about Osama Bin Laden? The hunt is still on.

Need to re-fuel the batteries
The Pentagon will also be faced with the task of rebuilding and repairing a military severely stressed out by the war. Some military forces have deployed as many as five times to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tanks, trucks, Humvees have been destroyed or are breaking down at record rates after nearly four years of wear and tear and war.

Don’t forget the global war on terror
The global war against terrorists and Islamic extremists will remain at the top of the Pentagon’s agenda, even if much of those U.S. military operations fail to make the headlines. U.S. Special Operations Forces will continue to work with the governments and militaries of developing nations, particularly in Africa, in an effort to prevent terrorist groups from getting a toehold in the most vulnerable countries.

Regain ‘soft power’
Inherent in everything the Pentagon and U.S. military pursue in 2007 will be an effort to regain whatever the U.S. may have lost in worldwide prestige and reputation during the war in Iraq.

Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News Chief Pentagon Correspondent.


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