Last fall, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicted a "process of tipping" in Iraq in which citizens there would become fed up with the murder and mayhem of extremists, and eventually turn to embrace democracy. His remark drew from the currently fashionable notion of "tipping points" to describe how major shifts occur in society and elsewhere.
Last month, Rumsfeld said the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq had demonstrated a "tipping" of support away from the insurgency and toward the new Iraqi government.
A military recruiter exits his office in New York. Reducing U.S. troops in Iraq will turn on how fast Iraqi forces and police can be trained.
(Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
But last week, the Pentagon leader was careful to hedge his judgment of Iraqi developments so far, speaking more in terms of ebbs and flows than decisive movement in a single direction.
"You start predicting that this is a turning point, then the next thing you find, there's a turning point back the other way," Rumsfeld told NBC News. "It is not a straight path."
Two years after the invasion, Rumsfeld's caution reflects complicated realities in Iraq, where the overall picture for the U.S. military remains very mixed, according to administration officials, military commanders and independent experts.
On the one hand, the strong turnout in January's elections and signs that the insurgency has weakened have given the U.S. effort a fresh sense of momentum. With the number of Iraqi security forces growing steadily and a new plan in place for Iraqi troops to take the lead in counterinsurgency operations, senior U.S. military officers have begun issuing guarded predictions about the possibility of reducing the U.S. troop level in Iraq by early next year.
On the other hand, Pentagon officials acknowledge that the gains to date fall well short of ensuring that peace and democracy will take hold in Iraq. There is widespread concern inside as well as outside the Pentagon that conditions in the country could still explode into new acts of violence and political chaos.
"Yes, we have learned from the last two years and, yes, there are signs of real progress, but I don't see the kind of definitive trends that would allow you to say victory is assured," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Since the invasion in March 2003, major moments in Iraq such as the fall of Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein have often been hailed as milestones in ways that suggested a steadier, more permanent path toward success than ended up being warranted by the persistence of violence, political instability and economic dysfunction.
For this reason, Cordesman and others regard talk of tipping points as too simplistic to assess the many factors in play in Iraq. They argue further that the crossing of a historical threshold of no return often is not discerned until many months, or years, after the fact.
"It's more useful in the case of Iraq to talk of a tipping period than a tipping point," said Sen. Carl M. Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. "And at the moment, things there can still go either way. Even our leaders have acknowledged it's far from a locked-in situation."
After growing in size and deadly effect last year, Iraq's insurgency, in the view of Army Gen. George W. Casey and other U.S. field commanders, has been blunted by U.S. military offensives. Insurgent attacks are down, and the bombs that enemy fighters are burying along roads and in vehicles appear more crudely assembled -- a development that U.S. commanders attribute to the capture of some main bombmakers in recent months. For every attack that results in casualties, another two prove ineffective, the Pentagon says.
Still, the insurgency retains sufficient ammunition, weapons, money and people to carry out, on average, 50 to 60 attacks a day. The bulk of them continue to occur in areas in central, western and northwestern Iraq heavily populated by Sunnis.
Senior U.S. military officers have cautioned that defeating the insurgency is likely to require a long-term struggle and depend more on politics than military force. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, reminded reporters earlier this month that insurgencies over the past century have lasted on average about nine years.