By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
The recent rise in U.S. troop deaths in Iraq is the "wrong metric" to use in assessing the effectiveness of the new security strategy for Baghdad, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday in a news conference with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Despite military reports to Congress that use numbers of attacks and overall levels of violence as an important gauge of Iraq's security status, Gates and Pace told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that violence is not a useful measure of progress. Setting the stage for mandatory reports to Congress in September, both officials said violence could go up in the summer months as troops try to give the Iraqi government time to set the country on the right track.
"If you had zero violence and people were not feeling good about their future, where are you?" said Pace, emphasizing that the sentiment of the Iraqi people is a much better measurement than the number of attacks. "So it's not about levels of violence. It's about progress being made, in fact, in the minds of the Iraqi people, so that they have confidence in their government in the way forward."
Pace and Gates acknowledged that violence could rise -- as it has in recent days, when at least a dozen U.S. troops have been killed -- but said the number of attacks has gone up largely because there are more U.S. brigades in harm's way. Pace said that the number of attacks per brigade has not increased but that the enemy in Iraq has focused on inflicting greater U.S. casualties because it wants to affect the American public's view of the war.
"As we do these sweeps in areas that we've been through before but now we're going to go in and hold, as we're taking the fight to the enemy with the additional troops, we can expect that there's going to be tough fighting ahead," Pace said. "And we can expect that our enemy is going to want to impact the psyche here in the United States with regard to the number of significant incidents that they're able to pull off and the total number of casualties that they're able to produce. So it is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact and therefore more casualties."
Gates agreed. "Our troops and the Iraqi troops are going into areas where they haven't been for some time, and they anticipated that there would be a high level of combat as they did that," he said.
Looking toward the September report by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Gates said the month of September has taken on an "aura" because it is a legislated benchmark for the Bush administration, the first of its kind since the war started in March 2003. Numerous political benchmarks in Iraq -- such as achieving sovereignty, the writing of the constitution, and general elections -- have come and gone with promises of major improvements failing to materialize. Gates said he expects Congress to be focused on that report and the subsequent decisions President Bush will make.
Gates has been increasingly cognizant of Congress's position on the war, as indicated by his recent decision not to recommend Pace's renomination. Appearing together at a news conference for the first time since Gates announced Pace would be leaving his position at the end of September, Gates reiterated that he had listened to lawmakers from both parties and decided that a confirmation hearing for Pace would "reopen all of the issues of the past six years" and would drag the nation through a painful process. Gates and Pace sat together at a table in front of reporters, as they have previously.
"As I said at the time, that was a recommendation to the president that I made with great regret and that he accepted with reluctance," Gates said. "It had been my hope that I would have the opportunity to continue to serve with General Pace through the end of the administration."
When asked if he felt personally responsible for the fact that the Iraq war has not gone as well as had been hoped, Pace said that he had "the great honor and privilege" of serving four years as vice chairman and two years as chairman and that he worked with a great team "to give my best military advice."