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Limiting the pain


Urban journal

For many of us, this is traditionally a season of hope. I'm having trouble finding any, though, given the escalating tragedy in Iraq.

There certainly isn't much hope to be found in the report by the Iraq Study Group. The report calls for diplomacy, and James Baker, the group's co-chair, says we must talk to our enemies. As important as that is even at this late date, it's hard to picture Iran, for one, being interested in constructive involvement.

Even the Study Group's call for troop withdrawal offers little hope. The Group wants us to change the focus from fighting to training and protecting. It wants us to "significantly increase the number of US military personnel, including combat troops, embedded in and supporting Iraqi Army units." As that happens, the report suggests, we should start pulling other combat troops out of Iraq, so that in just over a year, "subject to unexpected developments," all troops not involved in training or protecting Iraqi troops could be withdrawn.

The military is already planning to embed more of our troops in Iraqi units, in fact. But an article in the Washington Post on Sunday said the program is considered a "high-risk assignment" for the soldiers who'll be embedded.

"The concept is considered so dangerous," said the Post article, "that a group of potential replacements stand ready at Fort Riley, the US Army base directing the program, for immediate shipment to Iraq if members of a deployed team are killed or wounded, Major General Carter F. Ham, who runs the training program, told House members last week."

In the New York Times on Sunday, Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger in Iraq, warned against increasing the number of American advisers and cutting the number of fighting troops. "The adviser teams embedded with Iraqi units will become increasingly vulnerable," he wrote, "and a smaller force left behind in Iraq will find itself called upon to fight the inevitable worsening of violence with far fewer troops."

Nor will this training and protecting be quick. Spencer Ackerman of the American Prospect magazine says he asked former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who was a Study Group member, how many troops we'll need. His response, writes Ackerman, was that "it would necessitate 'a considerable force' for logistics, training, force protection, and special operations."

And so, if the Bush administration follows the advice of the Study Group, we'll change course, but we'll continue to bleed for what Ed Meese portrays as a "sustained period of time."

Well, all that's beside the point anyway. The Study Group report will have no effect on the Bush administration. The president still clings to the vision that the US can win in Iraq and that he'll democratize the Middle East.

Meantime, the car bombings, the kidnappings, the torture, the beheadings, go on.

"If the situation continues to deteriorate," warns the Iraq Study Group, "the consequences could be severe. A slide toward chaos could trigger the collapse of Iraq's government and a humanitarian catastrophe. Neighboring countries could intervene. Sunni-Shia clashes could spread. Al Qaeda could win a propaganda victory and expand its base of operations. The global standing of the United States could be diminished. Americans could become more polarized."

And Carnegie Endowment scholar David Rothkopf cautions against thinking in terms of a single country. Writing in Sunday's Washington Post, Rothkopf spelled out the larger threats we face: "Iran's acquisition of nuclear technology; a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan; increasing anti-American radicalism across the Muslim world and the threat that such passions pose to moderate leaders atop potentially fragile regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia; and Washington's growing alienation from allies who would normally share US interests."

The US invasion of Iraq, noted Rothkopf, has made all of those problems worse.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that despite its enormous budget, the Army is dangerously short of money for military equipment and "key personnel."

And what if we need military troops to serve somewhere else? What if another country explodes into civil war? What if there's another terrorist attack in the US? What if there's another hurricane like Katrina?

Numerous military leaders have made it clear: We do not have any more troops.

How many more Iraqis, Afghanis, and American and coalition troops will die? What dangers are we exposing ourselves to? What needs at home are going unmet?

And how long will this go on?

The Times' Frank Rich reminds us that in the Vietnam War --- even after Lyndon Johnson replaced Robert McNamara as defense secretary, after public sentiment had turned sharply against the war and allies were backing away, after a study recommended that we draw down our own troops and train the South Vietnamese, the war dragged on for five more years. And in those five years, more Americans were killed than had died in the earlier stage of the war.

And, David Rothkopf warned in his Washington Post article on Sunday, it's likely to be much harder to leave Iraq than it was to leave Vietnam.

Whenever we leave -- and at some time we will leave -- there will be chaos and pain. I don't find much hope in the Iraq Study Group's report. I don't find much hope in anything about Iraq right now. The best I can do is hope we leave as soon as possible, to limit the chaos and pain.

And you? What are your thoughts? Leave now? Stay the course? Follow the Study Group's advice? Send us your comments:; or, by land, The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester14607.