A rising death toll in Iraq and growing public skepticism are increasing political pressure on the Bush administration to better outline its goals for bringing home U.S. troops - but the situation on the ground offers the president no quick fix, military analysts said.
In fact, say Pentagon advisers who have traveled in the region, beating back the Iraqi insurgency could take three to five years and possibly as long as a decade to truly bring it under control. And that time promises to be bloody for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, they said, keeping the war in the headlines and potentially feeding U.S. doubts.
"The No. 1 concern I have about the war is the erosion of public support for it," said former Gen. John Keane, who retired in 2003 as the Army's vice chief of staff. "The only thing that would stop us from winning the insurgency is a lack of support from the American people, in the sense that they run out of patience."
Yet polls show that's exactly what's happening. Nearly six in 10 Americans in a Gallup poll released Monday said they support partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, the highest level ever recorded for that question.
For the first time, more than half also said they'd be upset with President George W. Bush if he sent more troops, while a majority in this and a Washington Post-ABC News poll in the past week said the war wasn't worth fighting.
The troubling aspect for the Bush administration, polling experts said, is that once a majority of the public sours on a war, it's very hard to get them to change that opinion. John Mueller, who studies public opinion during wartime at Ohio State University, said that once public support for the Vietnam War fell into negative territory, it never recovered.
Now, that public skepticism is starting to rub off even on Bush's fellow Republicans. One ardent war supporter, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), this week called on Bush to offer a firm timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Bush has refused. The White House this week dismissed the Gallup poll results, saying Iraq already has made great strides by holding elections in January and forming a new government. "Democracy, as the president has talked about, takes time, and we all must do what we can to support the Iraqi people as they move forward," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Some other Republicans have criticized the administration for not being more upfront about how tough the insurgency will be to beat and how long it will take.
In recent weeks, Bush has said the Iraqi security forces are "plenty capable," despite media reports suggesting that poor discipline has left units ill-prepared to fight. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, said in April that the United States is "definitely winning" in Iraq, even though May was one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces.
And Vice President Dick Cheney said recently that U.S. forces were seeing the "last throes" of the Iraqi insurgency amid desperate suicide attacks - a view several experts have questioned.
"It is a functioning, viable and dangerous insurgency that is not at the edge of immediate demise. . . ," said Kalev Sepp of the Naval Postgraduate School, who worked on counterinsurgency strategy last fall under the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey. Just two months ago, in a lull in violence after Iraq's January elections, Casey said he hoped to see "fairly substantial reductions" in the 140,000 U.S. troops by early 2006.
But yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the incoming Joint Chiefs chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, refused to endorse that view at a news conference, with Rumsfeld saying only that he would listen to recommendations from his Iraq commanders.
The White House exit strategy has been to train enough Iraqi forces so they can take over security duties inside Iraq and free U.S. troops to come home. Pace said yesterday 169,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained.
But Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who recently returned from Iraq, said this week on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he believes it could be as long as two years before Iraqi forces can take over. If Americans get an overly optimistic view of Iraqi progress, "That's going to cause our people back home to say, 'Bring them home now.' And really, we're not prepared to bring them home right now," he said.
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