The Fogginess of War
While politicians debate, the troops pack up and head off
When publicly assessing the Iraq war, U.S. military leaders are often at pains to point out that the enemy has a vote, by its actions, and that vote tends to change conditions on the ground. But last week, it was Republicans licking their wounds from an election trouncing and Democrats flush with a new mandate who repeatedly reminded the top military commander for the Middle East that the American people have voted and, by their actions, expect to see a new course in Iraq.
What course exactly? Washington is buzzing with possibilities-a number of which were swatted down by Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, in testimony last week before the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The most popular option, a sizable troop withdrawal in the next six months, would inflame sectarian violence, he warned. Partitioning the country along ethnic-religious lines, he said, is "not viable" and would create a Sunni state that would be little more than an al Qaeda safe haven. And though Abizaid did not rule out temporary troop surges to reinforce efforts to tamp down the turmoil-even as 2,200 Marines were being dispatched to the volatile Anbar province from ships stationed offshore in the Persian Gulf-he added that more troops could ultimately undermine the credibility of the fledgling Iraqi government. Just how weak the government is was highlighted by last Tuesday's brazen mass kidnapping of dozens of employees from the Sunni-run Ministry of Higher Education by gunmen wearing old and new national police uniforms.
"Whole different mission." Such is the stark reality facing the 18,500 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division as they depart Fort Hood, Texas, to take over security responsibilities in Baghdad. Much has changed on the ground since many of his soldiers were there before, says Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division during a previous tour in Iraq from 2003-04-and who next month becomes the No. 2 commander of American forces there. "It's a whole different mission," he tells U.S. News from his Fort Hood headquarters chockablock with packing boxes. "As a division commander then, I was much more focused on toppling a regime. Now we know that it's about getting confidence in the Iraq government so that it becomes credible. It's much more complex and we've got to understand that."
Key to that credibility is security in Baghdad-the "No. 1" priority for U.S. troops, says Odierno. On that front, "there is progress," he says, "but it's baby steps." To get the city under control, he adds, the Iraqi government must stand up its security forces, "and we've got to help them." Abizaid's testimony emphasized the need for more U.S. military training teams to be embedded within the Iraqi security forces as a vital part of any American exit strategy. U.S. military officials estimate that they may boost numbers from a dozen per Iraqi battalion (which can range from 200 to 700 soldiers), to some 60 U.S. military trainers. In addition, says Odierno, "You might have a division where you have a very large [U.S. transition team] that travels around, spending a couple of days with different battalions." He adds, "We have to continue to analyze what are the real capabilities in these teams."
It is one of many adjustments that Odierno anticipates in the months ahead. Some will come from, as they say, above his pay grade, including recommendations expected next month from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, also has convened a commission of military commanders to look into new strategies. According to U.S. News sources, the commission is examining, for example, ways to provide support to local leaders in the face of continued Iraqi government failure to deliver on promises of resources, particularly in Sunni areas. Abizaid testified that commanders are also looking into possibilities of both troop surges and phased troop withdrawals. These outcomes "are hard to predict-and have so many implications," says Odierno. The operational portion of his job, he adds, hinges on "what we are going to decide to do politically-and what the Iraqis want to do politically."
And perhaps the biggest political factor of all is time. During testimony last week, Abizaid was asked how much time remained until violence in Iraq reached the tipping point, beyond the control of the Iraqi government. He answered "four to six months." It seems, another congressman later quipped, "that we're always hearing that the next few months are critical."
But for few is that more true than soldiers at Fort Hood, where for the past three months the post gymnasium at the largest military base in the country has been the site of tearful and tough goodbyes as soldiers prepare to leave their families for one year-and joyful reunions as soldiers from the division they are replacing, the 4th Infantry Division, return home.
Maj. Joe Edstrom is on his way to Baghdad, his second tour there. He is headed to a country he knows is "drastically different" from the one he left 16 months ago. And he is leaving one that has changed, too. Edstrom's wife, Tina, 29, worries about "all of the negativity" surrounding the war, particularly these days. But he adds, as conditions have become more dire since his first tour, "I feel more of a drive of purpose." His wife looks at him as she gently rocks her toddler. "He's very brave," she says. "But that doesn't mean it's not heartbreaking when he leaves and [that] you don't suffer for it. Your husband comes back a different person. And you're a different person."
Across the gym, Sgt. 1st Class Ricardo Padron, a military intelligence specialist, is sitting on the gym bleachers alone, his mind, he says, already on another place. Padron has served in Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he nearly lost 2
This story appears in the November 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.