A year ago, President Bush lauded the city of Tal Afar in his City Club speech in Cleveland as a "concrete example of progress in Iraq."
He described how U.S. troops, operating with Iraqi forces, had cleared the city of terrorist beheaders in 2005 and restored hope to its traumatized people. He talked of how the peace was kept by "embedding" coalition forces with Iraq police and soldiers.
Tuesday night, Tal Afar was again a scene of slaughter. Only this time, it was the police and militiamen who rampaged through the city's Sunni neighborhoods, executing at least 45 men and teens.
The Shiite forces were avenging a pair of massive truck bombs the day before, which slaughtered dozens in the city's busy market districts.
Those bombs probably were set not by local Sunnis, but by insurgents from across the nearby Syrian border. The provocateurs even tried to block ambulances from getting the wounded to hospitals before local police chased them off.
Tal Afar, along ancient smuggling routes, has a large population of Turkomens, an ethnic group closer to Turks than Arabs. Yet it's also a mostly Shiite city, subject to the same sectarian tugs and conflicts.
Far from Baghdad's "surge," Iraq continues its agonizing fall into civil warfare and revenge killings.
With U.S. forces focused elsewhere, on Anbar province and Baghdad, sectarian provocateurs and terrorists allied with al-Qaida in Iraq have little trouble finding other targets.
Even more worryingly, the same Iraqi forces that U.S. military personnel are busily training to take over future Iraqi security are the most likely combatants in the next phase of this war, just as happened in Tal Afar.
This is why congressional debates over withdrawal deadlines and benchmarks are too little, too late.
Arbitrary dates and wishy-washy benchmarks can't substitute for rational strategic and tactical planning.
Donald Rumsfeld may have left the Pentagon, but this "war" still has no aim except a negative one - to keep things from getting worse.
As Tal Afar shows, America does not have enough troops to do even that.
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Instead of figuring out what U.S. forces can accomplish, America is just holding its finger in the dike against something even fouler. That's a posture more likely to result in a broken force and a rise in Iranian adventurism than a solution to Iraq's nightmare.
Tal Afar's fate shows that Iraq is just like all of the other "political" wars this nation was so eager to fight on ideological grounds, but without the must-win tactical mind-set to prevail. Only instead of the triple-canopy jungle patches and supply trails in Vietnam that GI's and Marines were expected to take at huge cost, and then leave - in Iraq, it's cities like Tal Afar.
There's another similarity with Vietnam.
The "best and the brightest" who concocted the twisted rationale and strategy for a no-win outcome are already living the good life far from the war zone.
Ex-Pentagon chief Rumsfeld was recently spotted lunching on an open-air deck in Taos' ski country. His former deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, hauls in more than $390,000 a year as World Bank president, according to the BBC.
Their policy aide, Douglas Feith, is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, with his own Web site and a book in progress.
Richard Perle, until 2003 chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, was chided for "flagrant abdication of duty" not in the public sector, but in the private one - when he raked in millions through incentive pay arrangements as an apparently not-so-independent board member of the former Chicago media firm Hollinger International Inc.
None of their relations is off fighting in Iraq.
Today, four of every 10 Americans still tell pollsters they want U.S. troops to stay put in Iraq.
But in the poll that counts, 95 percent of Americans of military age are staying put right at home in America, rather than signing up to go fight.
The 2.5 million Americans in uniform represents a tiny fraction of the 113 million in America whom the Census Bureau estimates to be between the military-eligible ages of 18 and 44.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan: email@example.com
© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer