Odierno: U.S. could be in Iraq another two or three years

Read the fine print.

General Odierno said he envisaged making enough of a difference within three or four months of the new deployments to move to a second phase of the new plan, pulling American troops back to the periphery of Baghdad and leaving Iraqi forces to carry on the fight in the capital. He said he hoped to be able to do that by August or September, but with American troops prepared to move back into the capital rapidly if commanders conclude that the pullback was “a miscalculation.”

Fred Kagan’s plan, which Bush supposedly favors, emphasizes the need for American troops, not just Iraqis, to stay behind in Baghdad and hold neighborhoods for months after they’ve been cleared. Either that strategy’s fallen out of favor or Odierno’s pullback timetable is wildly optimistic. (The plan also calls for 30,000 more troops at a minimum; according to newly anti-war Senator Gordon Smith, Bush is sending 20,000.) Assuming Odierno’s right, though, then we’re essentially done by summer either way. If things go well, we’ll pull back and the Iraqi military will take over the city. If not, if this push to take Baghdad fails like the last one did despite the extra troops, Americans won’t stand for another.

I’m reluctantly against the surge, not because I think it won’t work tactically (although it probably won’t — the new heavy footprint allegedly isn’t nearly heavy enough) but because I don’t trust the Iraqi government anymore to act in the national interest afterwards even if it does. Maliki said the other day that the coming operations would target all sects, but wouldn’t you know it, they’re starting with the Sunnis. Maybe they have to; the Shiites are such a heavy majority, maybe their trust has to be earned by hitting the Baathists and AQ before they’ll accept a campaign against the Mahdi army. But how vigorous a campaign will that even be? More Odierno from yesterday:

[T]he radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads a powerful militia, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an influential Shiite religious leader, met briefly in the holy city of Najaf, according to a Sadr spokesman. During the meeting, Sistani asked Sadr to support the Iraqi government and its security forces, according to the spokesman, Aysam al-Musawi.

Sadr and his increasingly powerful militiamen, accused of hunting down and killing Sunnis, have fought the Americans on several occasions and are a primary American concern. Odierno said Sadr was currently “working within the political system.”

“I’m not sure we take him down,” he said. “There are some extreme elements . . . that are conducting operations that we don’t agree with, and we will go after that.”

That could just be Odierno acting the diplomat, but if Sadr’s not retarded, he’ll behave himself for the next six months and deny the U.S. any further justification for attacking him. Meeting with Sistani is a shrewd move: it shows that he’s still sufficiently regarded by the Shiite-in-chief to be received by him. If he takes his advice and declares his newfound affinity for “the political system,” Sistani might be willing to protect him from the Americans. And Bush might be just fine with that — the quieter Sadr is, the sooner we can leave and the more plausible it’ll be when we declare “victory.” Then, when we’re gone, he can go back on the offensive and have the run of the land. The longer we wait to move against him, the more time he has to become “respectable” and non-threatening, and the weaker the case becomes for hitting him.

Bush is going to set benchmarks for the Iraqi government before the new initiative, which they’ll need to meet or else. At first I thought that was a concession to Pelosi’s demand for a new, non-open-ended commitment, but now I think it’s really just an escape hatch for himself. After all, Bush doesn’t need to make major concessions to Pelosi; like Tony Snow and Joe Biden say, if Bush wants to send 20,000 more troops, there’s nothing she can do to stop him. She could refuse to fund them once they’re there, but she wouldn’t dare. As for the benchmarks, though, of course the Iraqi government’s not going to meet them; they’ve never been able to before. And if they don’t and if the new push in Baghdad fails, Bush can then turn around and point to their failure to meet those goals, not the continuing lack of security, as a reason to withdraw. They’re an insurance policy for him, essentially.

He addresses the nation in exactly 48 hours. I’ll leave you with this from one soldier who’s tired of having to sit on his hands inside a Stryker parked in Sadr City while American helicopters and armored vehicles take fire:

“This is ridiculous. There are gunshots and we walk away,” said Spc. Patrick Dugas, a native of South Portland, Maine. “We should be allowed to get out there and find who is shooting. We should be allowed to do our jobs.”