The two top U.S. commanders in charge of the Iraq war, appearing separately on a total of four network talk shows yesterday, amended more sobering statements they had made to Congress and reporters last week.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, stressed the military and political progress being made in Iraq.
"There are peaks and valleys that you go through, but overall the trend is good," Abizaid told NBC's "Meet the Press." "We're certainly confident."
The training of Iraqi security forces is "very much on track," Casey told ABC's "This Week."
On Thursday, Casey said the "Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time." The day before, he backed away from earlier predictions that a "substantial" number of U.S. troops could by withdrawn early next year. "Right now, we're in a period of a little greater uncertainty than when I was asked that question back in July and March," he told reporters Wednesday.
It is not unusual for the administration to send out its top military commanders to clarify or speak optimistically about operations after congressional testimony or independent statements to the media that appear more pessimistic than the administration's position.
On Thursday, the generals also told Congress that the number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help had dropped from three to one -- meaning about 750 Iraqi troops out of 200,000 being trained were capable of operating independently -- and that the security situation was too uncertain to predict large-scale U.S. troop withdrawals anytime soon.
Yesterday, Casey confirmed that about one-third of the 119 Iraqi battalions are able to conduct operations with some U.S. assistance.
Abizaid, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," said Iraqi forces were courageously engaged in counterinsurgency operations and are now taking more casualties than U.S. forces: "Are they going to be capable of taking over counterinsurgency leads over the next several months? The answer is yes."
Both generals also said the political process was on track.
On Thursday, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) asked Casey whether a Sunni vote against the Oct. 15 referendum on a constitution could "possibly lead to a worsening political situation, rather than a better one."
"I think that's entirely possible, Senator," Casey answered. "I mean, as we've looked at this, we've looked for the constitution to be a national compact, and the perception now is that it's not . . . particularly among the Sunni."
Asked a similar question on CBS yesterday, Abizaid responded: "Whether or not the constitution fails in the referendum should not necessarily concern us. What should concern us is whether or not the Sunni Arab community in Iraq participates in the referendum politically, and in the upcoming governmental elections. . . . As long as politics is legitimate in Iraq, with all groups participating, whether it's in the constitutional referendum or the elections for a new government, we'll be just fine."
The generals' largely optimistic tone in their television appearances yesterday still included grave worries. Asked on CNN's "Late Edition" whether he thought the nearly 2,000 American troops killed in Iraq since the war's beginning may have died in vain, Casey answered: "No, I don't worry about that. Not yet -- we're not there yet."
Gen. John Abizaid said that the "overall trend is good" in Iraq.