BAGHDAD (AP) – U.S. military commanders said Friday the troop buildup in Iraq must be maintained until at least next summer and they may need as long as two years to ensure parts of the country are stable.
The battlefield generals’ pleas for more time come in the face of growing impatience in the United States and a push on Capitol Hill to begin withdrawing U.S. troops as soon as this fall.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said in an interview that if the buildup is reversed before next summer, the military will risk giving up the security gains it has achieved at a cost of hundreds of American lives over the past six months.
“It’s going to take through summer, into the fall, to defeat the extremists in my battle space, and it’s going to take me into next spring and summer to generate this sustained security presence,” said Lynch, who commands U.S. forces south of Baghdad.
U.S. forces are working to build the Iraq military’s ability to hold the gains made during the latest combat operations.
The White House said it still expects top commanders to deliver a report in September assessing the progress in Iraq, including whether the Iraqi government and its security forces have met 18 political and security benchmarks.
Pressure has reached a high level from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for a change of course in the war – which is in its fifth year and has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 U.S. troops.
“There may be various generals or various politicians or others who want to mention some other key time, but I think the key time for the vast majority of my members is September,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday. “And it certainly is for me.”
In Washington, White House officials said the timetable for assessing progress in Iraq has not changed and that September remains the next critical time frame for judging the course of the war. President Bush, who met with veterans and military families, accused Democrats of delaying action on money to upgrade equipment and give troops a pay raise.
However, the legislation is not an appropriations bill that feeds military spending accounts but a measure used by Congress to influence the management of major defense programs, set goals and guide the 2008 military spending bill.
It is needed to authorize military pay raises, although Congress typically does not finish the bill before fall and then makes pay raises retroactive.
Military analysts say there is an obvious disconnect between a military focused on seeking future success and politicians gripped by past failures in U.S. policy.
“The Army generals in Iraq believe that it is only now that they are implementing the right strategy for securing the country, so they deserve more time to do the job right, despite the four years of failure,” said Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.
Commanders have said they fully expect to provide the September report, but it may take much longer to determine whether the improvements are holding and the country is becoming stable.
Maj. Gen. W.E. Gaskin, U.S. commander in the Anbar province, said it would take two years before Iraqis can be self-sufficient in running their government and security forces.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters by video conference from Iraq, Gaskin said coalition efforts “have turned the corner … broken the cycle of violence in Anbar.” But, he added, “you cannot buy nor can you fast-forward experience. It has to be worked out.”
The point was driven home by Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, who said in an address Friday at the National Press Club that a premature withdrawal could fuel Islamic extremists, spread terrorism and force the U.S. back into the fight.
“If you lose the first battles of a long war, the war gets tougher. If you win the first battles, you’ve got momentum on your side, and, guess what, the war is shorter,” said Conway. “My concern is if we prematurely move, we’re going to be going back … I tend to think it’s better to get it done the first time.”
Lynch, in an interview with two reporters who traveled with him by helicopter to visit troops south and west of Baghdad, said he had projected in March, when he arrived as part of the troop buildup, that it would take him about 15 months to accomplish his mission, which would be summer 2008.
He expressed concern at the growing pressure in Washington to decide by September whether the troop buildup is working and to plan for an early start to withdrawing all combat troops.
Under Lynch’s command are two of the five Army brigades that Bush ordered to the Baghdad area in January as part of a revised counterinsurgency strategy. The three other brigades are in Baghdad and a volatile province northeast of the capital with the purpose of securing the civilian population.
Officials hope that reduced levels of sectarian violence will give Sunni and Shiite leaders an opportunity to create a government of true national unity.
Lynch said Iraqi security forces are not close to being ready to take over for the American troops. So if the extra U.S. troops that were brought in this year are to be sent home in coming months, the insurgents – both Sunni and Shiite extremist groups – will regain control, he said.
“To me, it would be wrong to take ground from the enemy at a cost – I’ve lost 80 soldiers under my command, 56 of those since the fourth of April – it would be wrong to have fought and won that terrain, only to turn around and give it back,” he said.
Lynch said there is a substantial risk that al-Qaida in Iraq, a mostly Iraqi Sunni extremist group, will try to launch a mass-casualty attack on one of the 29 small U.S. patrol bases south of Baghdad in hopes of influencing the political debate in Washington.
“We’ve got him on the run,” Lynch said, referring to the insurgents. “Some people say we’ve got him on the ropes. I don’t believe that. But I believe we’ve got him on the run.”
Lynch also said the Iraqi government needs to put about seven more Iraqi army battalions and about five more Iraqi police battalions in his area in order to provide the security now provided by U.S. forces.
Ultimately, he said, success or failure will be determined by the Iraqis themselves, and the outcome will not come quickly.
“This is Iraq. Everything takes time,” he said.