What I heard amounted to this: The United States has recently figured out a better approach to training Iraqi troops. Early this year it began putting more money, and more of its best people, on the job. As a result, more Iraqi units are operating effectively, and fewer are collapsing or deserting under pressure. In 2004, during major battles in Fallujah, Mosul, and elsewhere, large percentages of the Iraqi soldiers and policemen supposedly fighting alongside U.S. forces simply fled when the shooting began. But since the Iraqi elections last January "there has not been a single case of Iraqi security forces melting away or going out the back door of the police station," Petraeus told me. Iraqi recruits keep showing up at police and military enlistment stations, even as service in police and military units has become more dangerous.
But as the training and numbers are getting somewhat better, the problems created by the insurgency are getting worse—and getting worse faster than the Iraqi forces are improving. Measured against what it would take to leave Iraqis fully in charge of their own security, the United States and the Iraqi government are losing ground. Absent a dramatic change—in the insurgency, in American efforts, in resolving political differences in Iraq—America's options will grow worse, not better, as time goes on.
Here is a sampling of worried voices:
"The current situation will NEVER allow for an effective ISF [Iraqi Security Force] to be created," a young Marine officer who will not let me use his name wrote in an e-mail after he returned from Iraq this summer. "We simply do not have enough people to train forces. If we shift personnel from security duties to training, we release newly trained ISF into ever-worsening environs."
"A growing number of U.S. military officers in Iraq and those who have returned from the region are voicing concern that the nascent Iraqi army will fall apart if American forces are drawn down in the foreseeable future," Elaine Grossman, of the well-connected newsletter Inside the Pentagon, reported in September.
"U.S. trainers have made a heroic effort and have achieved some success with some units," Ahmed Hashim, of the Naval War College, told me in an e-mail. "But the Iraqi Security Forces are almost like a black hole. You put a lot in and little comes back out."
"I have to tell you that corruption is eating the guts of this counter-insurgency effort," a civilian wrote in an e-mail from Baghdad. Money meant to train new troops was leaking out to terrorists, he said. He empathized with "Iraqi officers here who see and yet are powerless to stop it because of the corrupt ministers and their aides."
"On the current course we will have two options," I was told by a Marine lieutenant colonel who had recently served in Iraq and who prefers to remain anonymous. "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our army, or we can just lose."
The officer went on to say that of course neither option was acceptable, which is why he thought it so urgent to change course. By "destroy our army" he meant that it would take years for the U.S. military to recover from the strain on manpower, equipment, and—most of all—morale that staying in Iraq would put on it. (Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey had this danger in mind when he told Time magazine last winter that "the Army's wheels are going to come off in the next twenty-four months" if it remained in Iraq.) "Losing" in Iraq would mean failing to overcome the violent insurgency. A continuing insurgency would, in the view of the officer I spoke with, sooner or later mean the country's fracture in a bloody civil war. That, in turn, would mean the emergence of a central "Sunni-stan" more actively hostile to the United States than Saddam Hussein's Iraq ever was, which could in the next decade be what the Taliban of Afghanistan was in the 1990s: a haven for al-Qaeda and related terrorists. "In Vietnam we just lost," the officer said. "This would be losing with consequences."