WASHINGTON – The men in charge of the war in Iraq can't say what they don't know.
Despite a barrage of requests from Senate and House armed services committees in two back-to-back hearings Thursday,three U.S. generals and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld provided almost nothing of what the committees asked,simply because they couldn't.
Nearly every committee member,in response to a Sept. 19 CNN poll that showed 63 percent of Americans favoring withdrawing from Iraq,voiced concern that the war plan lacks tangibility.
“If we can't understand what the metrics of success are,it's hard for the American people to understand,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton,D-N.Y.
Gens. George Casey,the head of operations in Iraq; John Abizaid,the head of U.S. Central Command; and Richard Myers,chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly told the committees their plan – to withdraw from Iraq only after “indigenous capabilities improve to the point that local communities can fight the fight themselves,” Abizaid said.
They couldn't give any “timetables” or “benchmarks” that committee members nearly begged for,but Casey said progress suggests that “we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counter-insurgency mission to them.”
But,each witness conceded,the effort in Iraq is so volatile that it's hard to know if that could happen soon.
“You can't know the variables,” Rumsfeld said. “That's why you have to use the phrase ‘conditions-based.'”
The U.S. has a system to determine when Iraq has met the conditions to handle the counter insurgency there,Casey said.
“Level one” is the highest classification for a battalion,he said,a “standard they are not going to achieve for some time.” For a complete withdrawal,every battalion has to reach at least level two. Right now,75 percent of Iraqi battalions are in the top three levels,he said.
Myers,who retires Friday after 40 years of military service,said the U.S. has never been involved in something like this. That's why it's so difficult,he said,to determine exactly when and how a U.S. victory might occur,or even what a victory is.
Nevertheless,Rumsfeld and the generals said things are going well.
“In the field,I don't get the same sense of despair that I get here in Washington,” Abizaid said. “I don't believe that we're fools. We have made mistakes. I'll take responsibility for that. There are a lot of mistakes at war,but I think we've done pretty damn good.”
To the American people,though,that's far from true. “Support for the war is eroding here,” said Sen. Joe Leiberman,D-Conn.
It seems what is needed,then,is better communication between the guys in charge and Americans.
“The rhetoric used to speak to the American public does not make it clear,” Rep. Ike Skelton,D-Mo.,said in reference to the president's stated goal of spreading democracy.
Reinforcing homeland morale with better communication would be a better option than withdrawing from Iraq,the witnesses said.
“Surely the next 9/11 would be right around the corner,” Myers said,referring to potential withdraw backlash. “It would embolden them beyond belief.”
Despite Casey's cautious optimism when he told committee members that Iraq's military might soon be self-sufficient,he also said that the average anti-insurgency campaign lasts nine years. That is not his projection,he said,but history suggests this war could last that long.
Abizaid said al Qaida is a complex foe.
“It's not like IBM,a monolith that's centralized,” Abizaid said. “It's much more like McDonald's. It's franchised. We have to have the same mindset about defeating this enemy as the FBI has about defeating the mafia.”