Americans get mixed signals on future of war in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The dog days of summer are upon us, and the signals for the future in our war in Iraq are deeply mixed, deeply confused and confusing, depending on who you listen to and what you read.

Gen. George Casey, the ground commander in Iraq, says we will begin drawing down American forces in Iraq as soon as the dawn of the New Year 2006.

Surely it is no coincidence that 2006 will bring us midterm elections for a new Congress, while the polls show the American people beginning to turn against President Bush's war and his management of same. Only 38 percent of those surveyed in an AP-IPSOS poll now say they support the way the president is managing the war.

So we have a president who continues at every opportunity to say that he—and we—will "stay the course" in Iraq, while his political advisers look at the polling numbers and break out in cold sweat. What to do?

Send out the general to suggest the draw-down is imminent, even as the Pentagon is announcing that between now and the end of the year we will actually increase the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq to secure the ratification of Iraq's new constitution and election of its new parliament.

Some divisions nearing the end of their latest 12 months in Hell will find they are being extended for another month or two or three. Some divisions preparing to rotate back into Iraq for the second or even third time may find their departures moved up correspondingly. The overlap is the buildup.

It amounts to a stealth increase of forces in Iraq, done on the cheap, while simultaneously sending a signal to American voters that a reduction in U.S. forces _especially all those National Guard and Reserve troops who have borne a heavy and deadly burden in this war and whose families back home are voters—is just around the corner.

It's enough to make a cynic of Mother Teresa.

The old saw has it that truth is the first casualty of war. In this war the truth was murdered in cold blood well before the war ever began, and it continues to die the death of a thousand cuts every day.

The president says we are going to stay in Iraq until the mission is actually accomplished as opposed to the photo op "mission accomplished" charade staged on that aircraft carrier flight deck when the real war was only just beginning, in May of 2003.

Everyone concedes that only the Iraqi people and government can win this war. It isn't ours to win, but it has always been ours to lose.

So how are the Iraqis doing?

The optimists say that we have trained, armed and equipped a 200,000-strong Iraqi security force that can increasingly take over the job of pursuing the insurgents and terrorists. The pessimists say that, in fact, the new Iraqi force is heavily infiltrated by the very people that are the enemy, and it is so poorly trained and led that perhaps no more than 5,000 of them can be trusted to operate independently without constant American support and in company with American troops.

The insurgents, the same ones Vice President Dick Cheney declared to be in the last throes of defeat, stage ever larger suicide bombings and use ever bigger roadside bombs to kill even more American soldiers and Marines.

In two days of horror a Marine Reserve unit from Ohio lost 20 men, a few killed in a shoot-out in the open with the insurgents, but most in an IED attack that took out the vehicle the Marines were riding in _an amphibious tractor, essentially an unarmored antiquated relic of the Vietnam war that was never intended to operate more than a few hundred yards off a landing beach.

It can be fairly stated that many of America's 1,800 dead and 14,000 wounded were killed because they were riding in unarmored or lightly armored vehicles that are totally inappropriate to the nature of the war and enemy we are fighting.

This while the heaviest and deadliest divisions in the world's best Army were being ordered to leave most of their best equipment—the M1A2 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles—parked at their home bases in orderly ranks.

This while the highly trained crews of those vehicles were ordered to dismount and become infantry to patrol the most dangerous streets and roads in the world in unarmored Humvees.

We are spending $5 billion a month on this war _much of it siphoned away and sucked up by private contractors—but somehow we can't send our soldiers and Marines to war with the best equipment in the world—the equipment we already own and know how to use to great effect.

Don't tell me we are going to stay the course. We are on the wrong course and it only leads deeper into the quicksand. Tell me how we are going to change course. Tell me how we are going to do everything we can, spend whatever it takes, to give our sons and daughters what they need to fight and survive and prevail even in a war that makes no sense.

Tell me we can at least do that. Tell me that you made some serious mistakes, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President and Mr. Secretary of Defense, and that you are willing to do everything to correct those mistakes.

Tell me this is not Wonderland, Alice.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young