Forty years ago, when the US was mired in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, the mantra for ending the impasse was 'declare victory and get out'. Those words came back to haunt the country last week when it lost 14 marines in a single ambush in western Iraq, wiping out a whole platoon in one of the worst incidents of the insurgency war.
At a time when General George Casey, commanding US forces in Iraq, had promised to make 'some fairly substantial reductions' in troop levels, it seemed that the time might have come to get out of an all-too-familiar quagmire.
According to a leaked Pentagon document, the US intends to reduce its garrison to 80,000 by the middle of 2006 and down to half that number by the end of the year.
Coming on top of British defense documents, which argue that coalition forces can be reduced from 176,000 to 66,000 during the same period, the figures are not only remarkably similar but they send out a powerful message that the end of the Iraqi occupation could soon be in sight.
For military planners and politicians alike this is a welcome development. Senior commanders in London and Washington are well aware of the 'Iraq factor' which is harming army recruitment and retention, and both the Blair and Bush administrations recognize the dangers of being saddled with an unpopular war that produces heavy casualties.
Although recent research by think-tanks such as the influential Brookings Institute can find no increase in US public disquiet about the operations in Iraq, wars of this kind can produce a tipping point when people begin to question the sacrifice and start asking awkward questions.
However, any draw-down in Iraq will not solve the problem of sending young men and women into combat zones. There is still Afghanistan, where elections are to be held later this year and where the security situation is still far from settled.
Next May, the British-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) will deploy in Afghanistan and there will be a consequent increase in the size of the UK military contribution, or what senior officers have described as 'a considerable ramp-up in capability'.
Details have still to be confirmed, but the increase in numbers could be as high as 5000 (at present the British garrison is 1000-strong) and it could include new formations such as the recently formed Special Reconnaissance Regiment and the reformed 1st Parachute Regiment, which has been trained as a 'ranger' battalion to support operations by the special forces.
The British area of operations will be in the south of Afghanistan, an unquiet area where the Taliban still operates and where the bulk of the illegal poppy cultivation is carried out. The crop is big business and the region is highly volatile. Last year, the UN estimated that production stood at 4200 tones and that its export value was $2.8 billion or 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. To enhance those staggering profits even further, producers have already started using mobile laboratories to process the opium base into heroin.
As Cindy Fazey, professor of international drugs policy at Liverpool University, put it: 'The leaders of this growing industry and the farmers who supply them are hardly going to stand by and watch their lucrative businesses destroyed.'
Initially, the ARRC will operate alongside US forces and elements of the Afghanistan National Army but it will not be a cakewalk. Senior commanders have promised a 'robust approach' to operations, but as there is no coherence to the borders and the region is home to intense tribal rivalries, the deployment could create as many imponderables as Iraq.
For the US there is an added difficulty. In evolving his Middle East strategy, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld placed great emphasis on the 'lily pads', the ring of air force bases which are used to project US authority over the Middle East and keep a close watch on the oil and gas supply lines running through the Caucasus and the old Soviet central Asian republics.
Afghanistan is central to that equation but last week the US was given six months' notice from the government of Uzbekistan to quit the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which is used to support operations in Afghanistan. The move is probably in retaliation for a US decision to withhold $8 million in aid in protest at President Islam Karimov's refusal to uphold human rights in Uzbekistan, but it is still something of a slap in the face.
While the Pentagon claims to be relaxed as it still has access to the Manas air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, it wants to avoid the impression that it is bowing to Russian and Chinese pressure to withdraw from the region. Once again, as happened in the 19th century, the new 'great game' in central Asia is being fought for high stakes, and lives and reputations are being put on the line.
© Copyright 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limited