Gen. David Petraeus, the US military's top commander in Iraq, has a message for the American public that might be summed up as this: We need more time to figure out how much time we will need.
In public and private appearances in Washington this week, General Petraeus continually has noted that the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq has begun to show progress – but also that it's an enormous task that will require a continued commitment on the part of the United States.
The problem for Petraeus and the White House is that this is not the first year of the war. Previous commanders have traveled to Capitol Hill over the past four years and said much the same thing about previous efforts.
Democratic congressional leaders say they have a high regard for Petraeus. They also say he's arrived at his job too late.
"The sacrifices borne by our troops and their families demand more than the blank checks the president is asking for – a war without end," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California on Wednesday.
In public and private appearances in Washington this week, Petraeus avoided direct comment on congressional votes on a war-spending bill that would require American troop withdrawals to begin on Oct 1.
But he did have a timetable of his own to discuss.
The surge in Baghdad, which requires the addition of five combat brigades, all of which won't arrive in Iraq until May or June, is still in its infancy, Petraeus said Thursday. While there has been an increase in some forms of violence, there are also signs of progress, he said, in a rare appearance before reporters in the Pentagon. But his message during the brief visit in Washington seemed to be that Americans – and, without saying it, Congress – need to give the effort more time.
"The situation is exceedingly complex and very tough," he said. "Success will take continued commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice."
Petraeus, roundly thought to be the man who can do the job in Iraq if anyone can, arrived in February. He said he sees a security situation that is in many ways harder to understand than others he has experienced in places like Haiti or the Balkans.
But the US plan of putting more boots on the ground has shown that it can have an impact on violence. Petraeus noted that there has been a drop in sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, largely due to the increase in both US and Iraqi troop presence. A significant withdrawal of forces by fall or next year, in which US forces essentially retreat to centralized bases, could results in an increase in such violence, said Petraeus.
"My sense is that there would be a resumption of sectarian violence were the presence of our forces and Iraqi forces to be reduced and not to do what they are doing right now," Petraeus said.
Petraeus said that he intends to conduct an assessment of the surge in September, in conjunction with US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. They will judge Iraq's level of security, its economy, and progress on rule of law and politics. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will review the plan for this assessment in coming weeks.
Although Petraeus acknowledged the rise in some forms of violence, he noted that there have been some pockets of progress. Life in Baghdad includes robust marketplaces, people walking on the street, soccer games, and other forms of daily activity that most Americans may not appreciate because the number of sensational attacks, including an increasing number of suicide- and car-bombings, mask those routines. But the rise in suicide- and car-bombings – many carried out by foreign fighters – indeed makes the security situation an enormous challenge.
"I am not trying in any way, shape, or form to indicate that this is a satisfactory situation whatsoever," he said.
"I am well aware that the sense of gradual progress and achievement we feel on the ground in many areas in Iraq is often eclipsed with the sensational attacks that overshadow our daily progress," he said.
Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who, along with others, proposed a plan for success in Iraq that was largely adopted by the administration in January, said at an event Wednesday that he thinks the war can still be won.
"I can't promise you that we will win, but I can promise you that we haven't lost yet," he said. "We can win."