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General’s long view could cut debate short

If Gen. David H. Petraeus has his way, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come.
General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testify before Congress
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify Monday before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.Stefan Zaklin / EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

If Gen. David H. Petraeus has his way, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come.

Iraq's armed forces are improving, Petraeus told Congress yesterday. Overall violence is down. Sunnis are turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and many Baghdad neighborhoods are more peaceful. Political reconciliation, said Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who testified alongside the general, is a now-visible light at the end of the tunnel. But the two men offered no clear pathway or timeline to reach the end.

Petraeus and Crocker have long complained that the Washington clock -- with congressional demands that the time has come for Iraqis take over their security and reconcile their political differences -- is running far faster than the one in Baghdad. Yesterday, they tried to slow Washington down.

"The process will not be quick," Crocker emphasized. "It will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment. There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect."

Judging by the relatively mild congressional reaction in a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Petraeus and Crocker may well succeed this week in deflecting Democratic demands to bring the troops home sooner rather than later. They are likely to face tougher questioning -- and stiffer challenges to the emerging trends they described -- from two Senate committees today. But by the time President Bush speaks to the nation later this week, September's much-anticipated battle over Iraq policy may be all but over.

Invoking Vietnam
Some Democrats sought to challenge the general. "The administration has sent you here today to convince [Congress] . . . that victory is at hand," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (Calif.) said in an opening statement. "With all due respect," Lantos told Petraeus, "I don't buy it."

Others invoked the Vietnam War, a historical analogy that Bush has recently used to make his case in favor of the Iraq war. "Twenty years from now, when we build the Iraq war memorial on the National Mall, how many more men and women will have been sacrificed to protect our so-called credibility?" asked Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "How many more names will be added to the wall before we admit it is time to leave? How many more names, General?"

Republicans countered by citing the threats from al-Qaeda and Iran, and defended Petraeus's honor against criticism from antiwar activists.

"The enemy . . . did not count on the United States regaining the initiative and going on the offensive throughout this strategy behind the surge," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). "This strategy has driven a wedge between al-Qaeda and the Sunni population, and that will help drive a similar wedge between the Shia extremists."

Petraeus refused to take the partisan bait from either side, taking a classic soldier's stance of just giving the facts as he sees them. He did not seek to defend the much-debated reasons for invading Iraq or the conduct of the war before he took command of U.S. forces in February.

Nor did he cast the war in terms the White House is fond of using -- a global fight against terrorism, where failure would threaten the U.S. homeland. Both Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq, Petraeus said, are problems. But "the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources."

In his opening testimony, Petraeus offered something for those seeking troop reductions. He said he has recommended to Bush that one Marine unit in Iraq leave soon, and that one of 20 Army brigades depart around Christmas and not be replaced. Next, Petraeus said, he will endorse sending home another five brigades by next summer -- a move that would return U.S. forces to the pre-"surge" level of about 130,000 and one that has long been expected because no replacement troops will be available.

He said it is too early to recommend longer-term reductions, telling lawmakers he will not be ready to propose any further cutbacks until sometime next year, probably in March. Beyond that, he offered a drawdown chart that had more question marks than dates.

Petraeus showed members of Congress a slide -- the last of 13 he presented -- that projected U.S. forces staying in Iraq for an indeterminate time. It did not attach any dates indicating any set timetable for withdrawal. Rather, Petraeus's spokesman said, the envisioned drawdown to 35,000 to 50,000 troops would be "conditions based."

No one engaged him on this point, trying to get him to flesh out the slide and explain its assumptions. The bottom-line question -- how long until the last U.S. troops will return from Iraq -- was never asked. "Overall, I haven't seen such impressive charts since I worked in the Pentagon when McNamara ran the place," commented retired Army Col. Charles Krohn, referring to Robert McNamara's tenure in the 1960s. Krohn served in the Vietnam War and as a civilian in Iraq.

Rather than stopping the clock, U.S. troops have turned it back, Petraeus said, showing charts indicating that violence has fallen to roughly the level it was when sectarian battles erupted in Iraq in mid-2006. Neither Petraeus nor Crocker mentioned the nearly four years of U.S. military involvement that began with the March 2003 invasion; both seemed to date U.S. involvement in Iraq as beginning anew with the troop escalation that started early this year.

‘A revolution -- not just regime change’
Crocker, whose voice seemed at times tinged with sadness, said the only valid way of judging Iraq now is to understand what Saddam Hussein had done to the country. He then jumped ahead, describing 2006 as "a bad year" in which Iraq nearly unraveled.

Ignoring the years after the invasion and before the troop increase in which the United States unsuccessfully tried to fashion a representative government, Crocker said that "the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 had its seeds in Saddam's social deconstruction, and it had dire consequences for the people of Iraq as well as its politics."

The country, he said, "is experiencing a revolution -- not just regime change. It is only by understanding this that we can appreciate what is happening in Iraq and what Iraqis have achieved, as well as maintain a sense of realism about the challenges that remain."

Realism, Crocker suggested, means suspending demands that Iraq reach 18 political and security benchmarks that Congress has set for it -- few of which the Iraqis have achieved -- and accepting instead more modest forms of progress.

"Some of the more promising political developments at the national level," Crocker said, "are neither measured in benchmarks nor visible to those far from Baghdad."

The legislation that imposed the benchmarks remains in place, and Bush still owes Congress a report at the end of this week on whether they have been met. But Petraeus and Crocker succeeded to a large extent yesterday in making them irrelevant.