The top U.S. operational commander in Iraq warned yesterday against an emerging "complacency" among Americans who now question whether the two-year war in Iraq "is worth it."
"The United States has not been attacked again since 11 September. And so there's some questioning, perhaps, of whether or not what's going on here is worth it," said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the Multinational Corps Iraq. "Quite honestly, I think we have a pretty clear-cut choice. We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us, as it would inevitably, as it has previously."
The comment from Gen. Vines came as American support for continued troop presence in Iraq is slipping in the polls and some members of Congress have offered particularly negative war assessments. All of this comes as the American death toll in Iraq topped 1,700 since the March 2003 invasion.
Gen. Vines, speaking via a teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon, said the "bit of complacency" stems in part from the operations in Iraq and at home that have been "relatively successful."
Asked about Americans who say Iraq is "a mess," Gen. Vines said, "I would say they don't have a good perception of what is at stake here. I would say that they don't recognize that the people that are attacking the coalition and that are murdering innocent men, women and children here want to impose that same value system on a large portion of the word."
Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, on the House floor called President Bush's decision to oust Saddam Hussein a "grotesque mistake" and "without success."
U.S. News and World Report quoted Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, as saying, "Things aren't getting any better. They're getting worse. ... The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."
Gen. Vines disagreed, saying there had been "significant progress throughout the country" since the transition a year ago from coalition rule to Iraqi sovereignty.
The Bush administration got an unexpected boost from a war critic, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He wrote an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post under the headline, "There's Progress in Iraq." Mr. Annan wrote, "Let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future."
Gen. Vines rejected setting a troop withdrawal timeline. He said such decisions should be based on conditions on the battlefield instead of "an arbitrary decision that's just based on a counter."
On the issue of when the current 135,000-troop level can be reduced permanently, the general said he is not yet ready to recommend a reduction before two important dates: a vote on a new Iraqi constitution in October and then general elections in December. Some senior officers had suggested that Gen. Vines, and his superiors, Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, collectively would recommend a drawdown by now.
But with Abu Musab Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq organization unleashing a series of deadly suicide attacks, no such recommendation is imminent.
"I would not be prepared to recommend a drawdown prior to the election, certainly not any significant numbers," Gen. Vines said.
But he also said there would be no "spike" in forces before the election, as had been mentioned earlier this year by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Gen. Vines divided the enemy into four camps: Zarqawi's foreign jihadists who target Iraqi authorities and civilians for murder; Sunni religious fanatics; Saddam Hussein loyalists who want to bring back Ba'athist rule; and Iraqis who simply do not want foreign troops on their soil.
"The foreign fighters are what amounts to a terrorist cruise missile," the three-star officer said. "They can target a specific element without having to worry about their own survival. ... You're seeing one- and two-person cells that are attacking a large group by driving into a crowded market and detonating themselves."
Gen. Vines said the insurgency "could dwindle down very quickly" if the Shi'ite-dominated government drafts a constitution that is accepted by minority Sunnis and Kurds.