Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the U.S. military over the course of the occupation of Iraq, with some senior officers beginning to say that the United States faces the prospect of casualties for years without achieving its goal of establishing a free and democratic Iraq.
Their major worry is that the United States is prevailing militarily but failing to win the support of the Iraqi people. That view is far from universal, but it is spreading and being voiced publicly for the first time.
An Apache helicopter flies over a burning car after a two-car convoy came under attack Saturday in Baghdad.
(Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
Army Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who spent much of the year in western Iraq, said he believes that at the tactical level at which fighting occurs, the U.S. military is still winning. But when asked whether he believes the United States is losing, he said, "I think strategically, we are."
Army Col. Paul Hughes, who last year was the first director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad, said he agrees with that view and noted that a pattern of winning battles while losing a war characterized the U.S. failure in Vietnam. "Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically," he said in an interview Friday.
"I lost my brother in Vietnam," added Hughes, a veteran Army strategist who is involved in formulating Iraq policy. "I promised myself, when I came on active duty, that I would do everything in my power to prevent that [sort of strategic loss] from happening again. Here I am, 30 years later, thinking we will win every fight and lose the war, because we don't understand the war we're in."
The emergence of sharp differences over U.S. strategy has set off a debate, a year after the United States ostensibly won a war in Iraq, about how to preserve that victory. The core question is how to end a festering insurrection that has stymied some reconstruction efforts, made many Iraqis feel less safe and created uncertainty about who actually will run the country after the scheduled turnover of sovereignty June 30.
Inside and outside the armed forces, experts generally argue that the U.S. military should remain there but should change its approach. Some argue for more troops, others for less, but they generally agree on revising the stated U.S. goals to make them less ambitious. They are worried by evidence that the United States is losing ground with the Iraqi public.
Some officers say the place to begin restructuring U.S. policy is by ousting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom they see as responsible for a series of strategic and tactical blunders over the past year. Several of those interviewed said a profound anger is building within the Army at Rumsfeld and those around him.
A senior general at the Pentagon said he believes the United States is already on the road to defeat. "It is doubtful we can go on much longer like this," he said. "The American people may not stand for it -- and they should not."
Asked who was to blame, this general pointed directly at Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. "I do not believe we had a clearly defined war strategy, end state and exit strategy before we commenced our invasion," he said. "Had someone like Colin Powell been the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], he would not have agreed to send troops without a clear exit strategy. The current OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] refused to listen or adhere to military advice."
Like several other officers interviewed for this report, this general spoke only on the condition that his name not be used. One reason for this is that some of these officers deal frequently with the senior Pentagon civilian officials they are criticizing, and some remain dependent on top officials to approve their current efforts and future promotions. Also, some say they believe that Rumsfeld and other top civilians punish public dissent. Senior officers frequently cite what they believe was the vindictive treatment of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki after he said early in 2003 that the administration was underestimating the number of U.S. troops that would be required to occupy postwar Iraq.
Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's No. 2 official, said he does not think the United States is losing in Iraq, and said no senior officer has expressed that thought to him, either. "I am sure that there are some out there" who think that, he said in an interview yesterday afternoon.
"There's no question that we're facing some difficulties," Wolfowitz said. "I don't mean to sound Pollyannaish -- we all know that we're facing a tough problem." But, he said, "I think the course we've set is the right one, which is moving as rapidly as possible to Iraqi self-government and Iraqi self-defense."
Wolfowitz, who is widely seen as the intellectual architect of the Bush administration's desire to create a free and democratic Iraq that will begin the transformation of the politics of the Middle East, also strongly rejected the idea of scaling back on that aim. "The goal has never been to win the Olympic high jump in democracy," he said. Moving toward democratization in Iraq will take time, he said. Yet, he continued, "I don't think the answer is to find some old Republican Guard generals and have them impose yet another dictatorship in an Arab country."