In a speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and in a 35-page National Security Council document announcing a new national strategy to win the war entitled "Victory in Iraq," the president focused more than ever before on building up the new Iraqi armed forces so that within the next year to two they could take much of the burden of the war off the hard-pressed backs of the 155,000-strong under-manned and badly stretched U.S. combat forces in Iraq.
The new strategy contained no surprises but a lot of unanswered questions. Bush, as expected, ruled out any total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He defined America's long-term goal in the California-sized nation of 25 million people with one of the largest oil reserves in the world as establishing the country as "peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism."
That goal is an exceptionally ambitious one, especially as even in the 36 years of Iraqi national independence before Saddam Hussein and his fellow Baathists established the second Baathist Republic in 1968, Iraq was never "peaceful, united, stable and secure."
The short-term goals defined in the document are in some part, but certainly not all, already being met. These are, that "Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building, democratic institutions and standing up security forces."
The security forces are already being established, but Pentagon testimony this summer acknowledged that as yet few of them are capable of reliably operating in intense combat situations on their own without massive U.S. support. Building them up to that level, the president acknowledged in his Annapolis speech, was now a major U.S. priority.
Pushed by the United States, political institutions are being built in Iraq and the first national elections under the recently approved constitution are still scheduled for Dec. 15. Over the past year the insurgents have repeatedly proven incapable of preventing such elections being held. Nor have they succeeded in deterring significant numbers of Iraqis in the majority Shiite community and the Kurdish community from participating in them.
However, U.S. military commanders have been very disappointed in the progress the Iraqi army has made this year in fighting the insurgents. Operation Lightning in May deployed an unprecedented 40,000 of them to try and clean up the capital Baghdad. The crackdown was unprecedented in its ambition and size: Thousands of suspects were arrested and many of them held as suspected terrorists.
Yet the operation did not even begin to dent insurgent capabilities either in Baghdad or around the country. On the contrary, in the months that followed it, as tracked and documented in UPI's weekly Iraq Benchmarks column, the rate at which Iraq security forces were being killed by the insurgents soared to record levels and the number of Multiple Fatality Bombings around the country by the Sunni Baathist and Islamist insurgents also soared to record levels.
In recent weeks, the number of total car bombings around the country has fallen, and the rate of casualties inflicted on the Iraqi forces has been steadily falling since July. But it is still running at more than 150 killed a month. And the insurgents' capacity to inflict casualties on U.S. troops does not appear to have diminished in the slightest. Although the rate at which U.S. troops were killed dropped slightly over the past two weeks, the rate at which they were being injured rose again and shows no sign of significantly falling over the long term.
The new National Strategy defines U.S. Middle Term goals in Iraq as placing Iraqi forces "in the lead defeating terrorists and providing its own security, with a fully constitutional government in place, and on its way to achieving its economic potential."
The constitutional government goals still appear to be on track. But even there, a huge question mark remains over whether the new government will be far more beholden to neighboring Iran than to the United States. Iraqi leaders now visit Tehran on a regular basis where they are warmly feted by the new extremist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who remains a favorite of the White House and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, recently visited Tehran and received glowing testimonials in the official media there.
However, the central strategic issue in Iraq, as the president and his National Strategy both acknowledged, remains the middle term goal of building up the Iraqi armed forces so that they will be simultaneously effective and reliable in combating the insurgents.
Some respected U.S. analysts, like Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believe this is still an achievable goal. Cordesman has documented real and impressive progress in building up Iraqi forces in recent months.
And James Fallows, in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine, in an article that was generally critical of U.S. failures to do more in building up the new Iraqi forces, also acknowledged that after U.S. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took over responsibility for training them and when John Negroponte took over as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, many previously ignored needs and problems were finally energetically addressed and real progress was made.
However, the real issue may not be whether a numerically impressive and even tactically reliable Iraqi army is built up, but how reliable and loyal it will prove to be both to its own constitutional government and to its U.S. ally. And here, history and precedent are not on the Americans side.
The British Empire ran Iraq directly as a Mandate of the League of Nations for 14 years, after World War I until 1932, and painstakingly built up and trained the Iraqi army during that time. But within nine years of independence, this same army had rebelled against both the democratically elected government and the British interest in Iraq twice, in 1936 and 1941, successfully toppling the government in both cases.
On the second occasion, in 1941, the Iraqi army sought immediately to join Britain's mortal enemy, Nazi Germany, and was only preventing from doing so by a hastily organized British military invasion and re-conquest of the country launched, ironically enough, from Jerusalem in Palestine, which was then still under British control.
Eventually in 1958, the Iraqi Army succeeded in toppling the British-supported constitutional government and slaughtered the entire Hashemite royal family of Iraq. Both moves proved immensely popular among the Iraqi people at the time.
The new National Strategy, therefore, appears a welcome and, indeed necessary sharpening of strategic focus for the United States on what needs to be done in Iraq. But it looks unlikely to achieve its goal of cutting off support for the until-now overwhelmingly Sunni insurgency.
That is because the more the U.S. goal of pushing through the new constitution and establishing a democratically-elected Iraqi government is achieved, the more resentment has grown across the entire Sunni community -- 20 percent of the total Iraqi population -- and the stronger the insurgency has become.
Nor can the new National Strategy guarantee that the ambitious goal of building up the Iraqi army stand on its own two feet will work in the long term.
That strategy was applied 35 years ago in Vietnam when the United States built up the Armed Forces of (South) Vietnam, or ARVN, to be being able to maintain security in the country after U.S. troops were withdrawn and in the short term that strategy, in fact, worked well. But the ARVN could not defend itself or its state from a full-scale military invasion launched with overwhelming force in 1975 by North Vietnam.
Similarly, even if the new Iraqi army serving a predominantly Shiite governing majority proves able to crush the Sunni insurgency, it may prove unwilling or unable to defend itself and its government against an eventual invasion from neighboring fellow-Shiite Iran.
Nor does the new National Strategy address the worrying issue of the rise in power and popularity of Shiite militias in southern Iraq, especially the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr. A Shiite-controlled national army that may eagerly act against the Sunni insurgents may nevertheless prove either unable or unwilling, or both, to act in a similar manner against its co-religionists.