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Time waits for no one, and Iraq is no exception

The new strategy in Iraq will work, but only if given more time

Some aspects of the mission in Iraq are improving, but establishing stable communities will take more time.
Marko Drobnjakovic / AP file
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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

General David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said recently that we will know in a few months if the new American strategy works.

I’ll save you the trouble of waiting: it works.

But the harsh reality is that time is not on our side.

Some aspects of our mission in Iraq are surely improving. In those areas where there is a concentration of American forces, such as Anbar Province and selected neighborhoods in Baghdad, the enemy is no longer in control. American and Iraqi troops routinely conduct raids, kill and capture insurgents, and dismantle shops where they have been manufacturing deadly bombs.

At long last, because we are now staying in these areas once they have been cleared, the enemy can now return only at great risk, and insurgent effectiveness is considerably diminished. Better yet, local populations are increasingly volunteering information that leads to successful action against the militias. Not surprisingly, the daily lives of Iraqi people in these areas are improving, as are commerce and government services. In time, this reinforcing loop of military patience and aggressiveness, coupled with successful civic action, should yield pacified communities.

In time.

But tragically, for the United States, time is a commodity that is in short supply in Iraq. We did have plenty of it, four years ago, but since then we’ve squandered the initial combat success we engineered.

The missteps are well known. Disband the Iraqi army, only to try to reconstitute it. Deliberately let the militias remain under arms, only to have to fight them years later. Clear troublesome areas but then leave, only to go back time and time again. As we know, these, and other debilitating errors, were the direct results of foolishly deciding to employ an inadequately-sized force in the first place, poor planning, the use of reactive tactics, an aversion to the costs of war, and shockingly unenlightened leadership.

The counterinsurgency techniques of General Petraeus are not new and are well understood to produce satisfactory results, but we are using them years late and only in selected areas. The American force is still too small to produce the desired effect across most of Iraq. Many of the insurgents, particularly Shiite militiamen, have gone to ground, merely waiting for us to leave. And the American public’s initial enthusiasm has been eroded by four years of ineffectual tactics in support of a vague strategy. Public disenchantment is now fueled by a histrionic debate among our elected representatives that is not likely to achieve anything conducive to success.

This conflict has cost a great deal of money, although we can (and do) print more money. Our brave troops have sacrificed, of course. Certainly the Army is broken, and the Marine Corps may be as well, and they will both take years and billions of dollars to repair. In the interim, we will be severely challenged if we need to accomplish other missions.

After four years of scant progress, the American electorate can’t really be accused of lacking patience, but it’s more patience that is needed. If the strategy is to work across all of Iraq, it will only be in the highly unlikely event that our forces are given more time to accomplish the mission.

So if there’s one lesson here, it’s that time waits for no one.

Col. Jack Jacobs (U.S. Army, retired) is a military analyst for MSNBC.

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