In Iraq, What Are the Benchmarks?

Monday, December 19, 2005

In Iraq, What Are the Benchmarks?

Last night, when I heard President Bush speak these words ...

My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.

... my first thoughts were as follows: On what basis does he conclude that we are "winning"? What benchmarks is the President using to come to this conclusion? In a game like football, the benchmarks are clear -- there's a scoreboard and a game clock. But it's much trickier to keep score in war. I'll be the first to acknowledge that.

The U.S. military has lost more than 2,150 soldiers since the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It's harder to count how many insurgents' lives have been lost. And even if we knew that figure, it would not (in and of itself) determine who's winning or losing.

In one 60-day period of 1864, the Union Army suffered considerably higher casualties (55,000) than the Confederates. Yet the battles fought by the Union were critical in strategic terms. Even as they were suffering frightfully high casualties, the Union was advancing toward Richmond, which was the Union's end game.

But what is the end game for the U.S. in Iraq? This has never been stated in clear terms. Even last night, Bush was as cryptic as ever:
I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground and the advice of our military leaders ...
But what kind of "progress" will he be looking for?

* How many Iraqi military and police units need to be fully trained and ready for deployment?

* Which towns or districts, now tormented by violence, need to be stabilized?

I suspect these kinds of questions are being asked by top military commanders, but the White House, never anxious to be held to any standard (high or low), wants to steer clear of establishing benchmarks that could be used potentially to point to shortcomings in the post-war occupation.

Unfortunately, public support has slipped largely because Americans don't understand the mission in Iraq. Without benchmarks to assess actual on-the-ground progress, most Americans are probably a little skeptical when their president declares "we are winning" in Iraq.

Without a scoreboard of any kind to offer an objective assessment, Bush's "winning" rhetoric sounds empty and self-serving.

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