In refocusing the nation's attention on the war on terror in past weeks, both the president and his critics in Congress are increasingly turning to a fundamental yet frequently overlooked aspect of the Iraq conflict: whether the United States has a clear military strategy to defeat the insurgency.
Time and again, the Bush administration has stated that the way to ultimately break the insurgency is to create a strong and democratic Iraq. But that's the political path to victory, measured in mileposts such as last weekend's constitutional referendum. How to assess the military's progress in subduing - or at least managing - an enemy that refuses to stand and fight is a question that only now is getting asked.
This conflict is the sort that the armed forces have avoided since Vietnam, where the Pentagon never found adequate answers to similar strategic questions. But America's more aggressive post-Sept. 11 stance suggests that this is the warfare of the future - and the military must learn how to cope with it.
Now, pressed by Congress and an impatient public, President Bush and Pentagon leaders have begun to articulate the vision behind their current course - casting Iraq as a battle of wills in which American forces will help an improving Iraqi Army hunt down and destroy terrorists. But after 2-1/2 years of halting progress, doubts are growing among military analysts and a more combative Congress that this is a winning strategy - or even a strategy at all.
"Strategy is about connecting means to ends," says Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. "It's not quite clear what the strategy is."
On several occasions recently, the president has sought to refute these critics. "Our strategy is clear in Iraq," he declared in the Rose Garden Sept. 28, citing how coalition forces had killed the second-highest ranking member of Al Qaeda in Iraq and were training Iraqi forces. As more Iraqi forces reach readiness, he added, coalition forces would strike more terrorist enclaves and hold them, tightening the noose on the insurgency.
Two days later, the top commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, went so far as to say that "we need to defeat [Al Qaeda in Iraq] in the next six to 12 months, restore Iraqi control over the borders, keep them from bringing in the suicide bombers and the foreign fighters, so that after these elections the Iraqis have the opportunity to deal with the [remaining militant Saddam Hussein loyalists]."
Yet after staying largely silent on the issue throughout much of the Iraq war, Congress is now questioning whether the ongoing military operations in Iraq are guided by any unified strategy to secure the country. In a Sept. 29 congressional hearing, Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri asked General Casey: "What are we seeking to achieve? Are we fighting a counterinsurgency mission, or is our mission simply to train and equip the Iraqis?"
Two weeks ago, Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island proclaimed that "what the administration is talking about is not really a strategy to succeed, but simply a strategy to leave."
Not coincidentally, the most critical voices have been Democrats. Sensing a president wounded by Katrina and buffeted by the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war, some lawmakers have seized the strategy issue as a new and politically palatable way to criticize the administration without overtly opposing the war.
But the concerns go beyond politics. They strike at the very character and capacity of the modern military. The grand lesson of Vietnam was that America's armed forces were peerless on the field of battle, but ill-suited for protracted conflicts against unconventional armies.
"The consensus among the military was that we don't want any more of these wars because we don't like them and we're not good at them," says Dr. Krepinevich.
From that experience emerged the so-called Powell Doctrine - named for retired Gen. Colin Powell's insistence that the US military go to war only when it had a clear mission, overwhelming force, and an obvious exit strategy. Sept. 11, however, drew America into the sorts of conflicts it had specifically avoided, involving the untidy and time-consuming prospect of toppling nations and rebuilding them.
In Iraq, the toppling was practically flawless, but the military is still coming to grips with how to wage war against the embers of anger - an unseen enemy that doesn't align itself in battalions, divisions, or corps. Army leaders recognize that something more than a rifle and a helmet is required.
"You need a strategy, not just a military strategy," says Brig. Gen. Volney Warner of the Army Command and General Staff College, noting that political and economic progress are necessary to turn citizens against an insurgency. "The military's general role is to ensure security and stability."
How to provide that security, however, has so far proved elusive in the four most violent provinces. The large, periodic raids against scattered insurgent strongholds - such as the recent Operations Iron Fist and River Gate - have accomplished little, critics say, and have had more to do with short-term election-day security than a long-term plan for victory. Although it is the kind of mission for which the Army is best suited, there's little evidence that they have significantly dulled the insurgents' capacity. "What we've had are operations that go out and try to find terrorists and kill them in situations where we haven't got the underlying intelligence [from informants]," says Krepinevich.
So he suggests what he calls the ink-spot strategy: consolidating security in the 14 relatively nonviolent provinces and then slowly moving out to areas of the other provinces. The military would hold these areas with overwhelming force for a period of six months or a year before moving on - spreading like an ink spot on a tablecloth.
By creating a sense of security, the coalition can create and gradually expand the number of areas where residents feel comfortable passing along tips about insurgents without fear of reprisals. After all, coalition forces are estimated to outnumber insurgents 20 to 1, Krepinevich says: "If we knew who [the] insurgents were and where they were, the insurgency would be over."