Next six months critical to US's effort in Iraq... again?

An elite team of officers that advises US commander Gen. David Petraeus has concluded that the US has six months to turn around the situation in Iraq, or else face a Vietnam-style collapse that could force the military into a "hasty retreat."

The Guardian reports that the officers who have reached this conclusion are combat veterans and experts in counterinsurgency and are among those leading the implementation of US President George Bush's new Iraq strategy.

But the team, known as the "Baghdad brains trust" and ensconced in the heavily fortified Green Zone around the US embassy, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems in what has become a race against time, said a former senior administration official familiar with their deliberations. "They know they are operating under a clock. They know they are going to hear a lot more talk in Washington about 'Plan B' by the autumn – meaning withdrawal. They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it's getting harder every day," the former official said.

The Guardian also reports that the main problems facing the group and the US military over the next six months include an insufficient number of troops on the ground; an international coalition that is falling apart; an anticipated upsurge in violence in the south of Iraq as the British forces leave in the coming months; morale problems in the US military as casualties rise; and a "lack of will" in Washington and Baghdad.

As a result, most top military officers feel that the next six months will be critical to America's efforts in Iraq.

This is not the first time that US officials have presented a timeframe of roughly six months in which issues needed to be resolved, or else Iraq and the US mission there would collapse.

In February of 2003, the BBC reported that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld anticipated that any war against Iraq "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." Then, in June of 2005 after the first time estimate had shown itself to be incorrect, Mr. Rumsfeld said insurgencies can last anywhere from "five to 12 years."

In an interview in June of 2005 with NPR's "All Things Considered," Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq and soon-to-be US ambassador to the United Nations, said that the next nine months would be critical in stabilizing Iraq. Then in an June 2006 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Ambassador Khalilzad said the "next six months would be critical" to accomplish the task.

In July of 2006, Defense and the National Interest, a website dedicated to fostering debate about role of the armed forces after the Cold War, published an article – written under the pseudonym Fabius Maximus (the Roman leader who the site says "saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness, the need to conserve and regenerate") – which documented several dozen statements, starting before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and continuing after a few months ago, in which politicians and pundits, including cabinet officials, US senators (both Democratic and Republican) and prominent columnists, said that the next few months would be the most critical ones in Iraq.

Some US officials have argued for not applying any kind of a time limit. In September of 2006, then US commander in Iraq, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, was asked in a congressional hearing if the US was winning the war. He replied, "Given unlimited time and unlimited support, we're winning the war."

In January of 2007, Agence France-Presse reported that Jordan's King Abdullah (speaking at the Davos international economic forum) also said that tough decisions would need to be made in Iraq if the current troop buildup fails to work in the next six months.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Tisdall – the journalist who reported on the concerns of the "Baghdad brains trust" – says that maybe their time estimate is actually correct.

For sure, the Bush administration broke Saddam's Iraq. They have a duty to fix it. But it was a fairly dysfunctional society even before Dubya emerged from Texan obscurity to terrify and destabilize the world. Long-term Iraqi solutions are for Iraqis, not the US military, to devise. It cannot, and should not, be done for them.

All the same, given the limited timeframe, Petraeus has a mountain, if not a Himalyan range, to climb. "Many of Petraeus's strongest supporters fear that his new assignment is a no-win mission," said [Sarah Sewall, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence and Harvard-based human rights specialist]. If that proves to be the case, she noted, Petraeus has promised to say so by late summer, not just to Bush but in public to the American people through the medium of Congress.

Tisdall says that it may be in this act of truth that General Petraeus will provide his greatest service to his nation.

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