- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Donald Rumsfeld continues to push military officials to come up with a strategic counteroffensive against the bombing attacks that have plagued Baghdad since August.

For months now, the blunt-talking Defense secretary has been urging the Pentagon’s top brass to think “outside the box” in search of a more effective post-war plan to strengthen security around Iraq’s capital. But thus far, his military planners have come up with very little that has impressed him, according to Pentagon insiders.

His widely circulated leaked memo earlier this month to the Joint Chiefs of Staff was seen as sharply critical of their progress to date in Iraq. In fact, his memo was really an impatient CEO’s kick-in-the-pants attempt to force senior military officials into thinking more strategically about how to get back on offense in a war of terrorism that is growing bolder and bloodier.

Now, after Monday’s well-coordinated suicide car bombings that killed 35 people in Baghdad, including one U.S. soldier, Mr. Rumsfeld is once again presiding over lengthy strategy meetings in “the tank” with top military officials. While his problems are growing, the solutions are shrinking.

President Bush responded to Monday’s attacks with an answer he has given before: They are a desperate attempt by terrorists to undermine U.S. successes in Iraq. Electricity is restored, Iraqi oil is flowing again to export markets, businesses and schools are opened, more people are working, an Iraqi Cabinet is in place, a constitution and national elections are expected by early next year.

“The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react,” said Mr. Bush.

There is some truth to this. Instead of attacking U.S. military sites that have been hardened or going after large numbers of U.S. troops who can respond with lethal fire power, the insurgents are going after “soft” targets like the Red Cross headquarters and Iraqi police stations.

But all this gets lost in the incurably negative network news coverage that focuses mostly on the bombing attacks by a relatively small number of perpetrators. The sporadic deaths and destruction look like a war without end and even some of Mr. Bush’s supporters are beginning to portray it that way, too.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who backs Mr. Bush on Iraq, told Newsweek, “This is the first time I have seen a parallel to Vietnam, in terms of information that the administration is putting out versus the actual situation on the ground.”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said Mr. Bush’s remarks reminded him of the “light at the end of the tunnel” claims during the Vietnam War.

But Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld are under no illusion about what is happening on the ground. This is a battle between the vast Iraqi majority who want to rule their own country and a small minority of bloodthirsty insurgents — Saddam Hussein loyalists, al Qaeda, Syrian, Iranian, Pakistani and Saudi terrorists — who are opposed to a democratic Iraq that is allied with the West.

The question that Mr. Rumsfeld and his military planners are grappling with is “What do we do now?” In fact, there are not any easy answers beyond what we are doing now: Training and building up the Iraqi army, police and civil defense forces as fast as we can. Their number is about 85,000 and growing, and that is changing the complexion of the war. Increasingly, the terrorists are killing Iraqi military and police forces and government officials who are bravely fighting to free their country from terrorism.

As for an exit strategy for the United States, several changes have already been agreed upon at senior levels. There is broad agreement that the job of putting together a constitution and preparing for elections will be achieved much earlier, perhaps by next spring.

Senior military officials also say they expect U.S. forces will be reduced early next year when troop rotations are made in February. Going into the 2004 elections, the White House wants to see U.S. troop levels being phased down as the Iraqi armed forces take over more of the burden of hunting down the terrorists in their midst.

In the months to come, the Pentagon’s bottom line strategy is to turn this into an Iraqi struggle, with U.S. training, money and arms.

Meantime, Mr. Rumsfeld keeps pushing the Joint Chiefs to come up with new ways to make Baghdad a less dangerous place as Iraq’s restoration moves forward. Here’s three ideas:

Routine flights over the city by night-vision camera-carrying drones to spot bomb-laden vehicles and other suspicious terrorist activity.

Shifting our intelligence resources from the search for the elusive weapons of mass destruction to the search for those who run, arm and finance the resistance.

And stricter prohibition of any unauthorized cars or trucks anywhere near major businesses, government buildings and highly populated market places. How did that rocket-filled vehicle ever get near the al-Rashid Hotel in the first place?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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