Michael Yon wrote yesterday that “Al Qaeda seems to have been effectively isolated. The initial attack on 19 June achieved enough surprise that al Qaeda was caught off guard and trapped. They have been beaten back mostly into pockets and are surrounded and will be dealt with.” Hopefully that’s still true of the rank and file but it appears not to be true of the top guys. Totally demoralizing, notwithstanding the good work done thus far and the fact there are still a few big fish left in the pool, per the fact that we hooked two of them earlier today. It’s not clear when exactly they took off: Gen. Odierno told reporters that he thinks it was a combination of media coverage of the surge plus military leadership having publicly identified Baquba as a problem that was going to need solving shortly.

Now they’re gone. The problem is the same problem it’s been since the very beginning:

An officer working in Arrowhead Ripper, the subsidiary offensive in Diyala province, said wearily, “We just do not have the forces in country right now to have the appropriate level of presence across the country.”

Many counterinsurgency experts agree. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., the director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a national security think tank, said flatly that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, does not have enough troops. “I suspect General Petraeus is taking a risk here, but that’s what commanders do,” he said…

One of Petraeus’s nerviest gambles is that enemy fighters will not be able to move and disrupt other areas. The biggest concern for U.S. commanders is the big northern city of Mosul, where insurgents counterattacked the last time the U.S. military conducted an operation this size, in November 2004. That is especially worrisome because the United States now has only one battalion of about 1,000 troops stationed there, far fewer than were there then.

We tried this before in Fallujah, of course. According to the Times, the mujahideen are reinfiltrating there now too. The Iraqi army is supposed to fill the manpower gap but WaPo pours some cold water on that:

[O]ther officers report that the Iraqi forces themselves are not big enough and also have a mixed record in combat. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who oversaw training and advising efforts there until this month, said in recent congressional testimony that Iraqi units are improving but “do not have tactical staying power.”…

Iraqi security forces are “the weak link,” said counterinsurgency expert Krepinevich. The Iraqi government is so factionalized that Iraqi forces remain largely ineffective, he explained: “This is the principal weak spot in our strategy — and I’m afraid it may be fatal.”

Complicating that is the fact that the IA has a spotty recent history in Baquba, with the local commander having been removed earlier this year for persecuting the local Sunnis. That’s one of the reasons the military’s started to “outsource” security in Sunni areas to the tribes, which of course has its own element of nuance: “Although the tribes have proved a potent force against Al Qaeda in Iraq, others worry that any power and weapons given to them now will not be easily taken away when that threat is gone. If too much authority devolves to them, some in government fear, the country may begin to look uncomfortably like Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan.” There’s already a split within the Anbar awakening, although they haven’t started fighting each other. Yet.

Still a long way to go with the current operation, of course, but bear in mind that what’s happening now in Baquba is the template — albeit on a much grander scale — for what U.S. troops will be doing in Iraq once the inevitable drawdown occurs next year. The Baker-Hamilton plan, which is now back in vogue, calls for training the IA while maintaining a smaller combat force to fight Al Qaeda. How we’re going to seek and destroy AQ with half these numbers when we can’t seek and destroy them now is beyond me, but there’s no more men to be had. Either the IA’s going to do this or it won’t get done.

Odierno said yesterday they could be ready by spring. I’m skeptical.

Update: The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.