Bad reports from Iraq may be just beginning

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To anyone who knows me well, it should come as no shock that when I was in grade school my deportment was not particularly good. I took education very seriously but not its process, and although I can't recall the specific antic that motivated my fourth-grade teacher to send a note to my parents, I do remember that it began:

Dear Mr. And Mrs. Jacobs,
Today was the last straw…

But I was an angelic over-achiever in contrast to Iraq, whose mid-term report card we have just received. This student needs lots of improvement.

First, the good news: things are developing satisfactorily in some areas. For example, our aggressive and continued presence in Anbar Province has resulted in a dramatic decrease in violence there. Insurgents who weren't killed or captured have moved to other places, leaving the people of the province free to get on with their lives without being molested. We are training new Iraqi units, too, and some of them are capable of independent operations.

However, most of the success stories have one thing in common: they are the result of American, not Iraqi, effort.  Alas, initiatives that are crucial to the long-term success of the Iraq government have been startlingly unsuccessful. Establishing effective provincial governments, disarming militias, distributing oil income, controlling sectarianism, there is little or no progress toward achieving these and other important objectives, and there is scant evidence that there will be any progress soon enough to mollify even Bush's fellow Republicans, some of whom are now vocally opposed to our effort in Iraq.

Last week, President Bush addressed this disappointing report card, and his theme was that this is an interim assessment, that we should wait until Gen. Petraeus delivers his analysis a bit over a month from now. But it is difficult to envision how Iraq's sputtering government can make progress in the short time remaining, and most people are assuming that September's report will be just as pessimistic as last week's one.

When that happens, congressional opponents of our policy in Iraq will strive to legislate a withdrawal, and the White House knows it. Indeed, President Bush is likely to pre-empt the ensuing public debate by concluding that, in the face of the Iraqi government's inability to make progress, an American troop drawdown will follow. So, without a doubt, Gen. Petraeus has already been charged by the secretary of defense to devise a number of plans to effect a reduction, but not a total withdrawal, of American forces. But reducing forces is neither pleasant nor easy.

Strategically, a complete abandonment of Iraq has its own obvious dangers, and we are likely to keep some troops in Iraq to continue to train its army and police force and to provide them with logistical support. And American forces will remain in the area in places like Qatar, Kuwait and in countries in the Caucasus. So we may draw down in Iraq, but we will probably build up nearby.

And tactically, leaving an area of active combat is one of the most difficult of all military operations. Someone once observed that it is a bit like performing open-heart surgery on a Marathon runner during the race. Problems abound: How do you protect the remaining force while you withdraw? What do you do with all your equipment? What do you do when withdrawing units get into tactical trouble – send troops back into the area to bail them out?

Once we're gone, of course, all plans become irrelevant, and there are many possible outcomes, most of them unpleasant. For example, if al-Maliki's government can't control the security situation when we're there, it is almost guaranteed not to control it once we're gone. If anyone has had his fill of sectarian violence now, just wait until we leave. There are some analysts who believe that our presence in Iraq is a cause of the violence, but it is only the cause of the violence against us. After we draw down, Iraqi civilians will continue to die, and probably in much greater numbers. Moqtada al-Sadr will make a violent bid for power. Iran will insinuate itself deeper into Iraqi affairs. A jittery Turkey will prepare for war.

The bad reports may be just beginning.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.