Gen. George Casey, center, during one of his meetings in Iraq.
MOSUL, IRAQ — More than five years into the war in Iraq, which has cost more than 4,100 American lives and nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, it's becoming clear that its outcome may hinge on whether the United States can do what it failed to do in an earlier war in Southeast Asia — win the hearts and minds of the people by improving their living conditions.
That was one of the main messages that Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey heard during an unannounced three-day visit to Iraq that I accompanied him on last week as America's longest and most divisive war since Vietnam reached a critical turning point.
Casey, who commanded multinational forces in Iraq for three years before assuming his new post in April 2007, concluded a whirlwind visit in this northern Iraq city, the country's third largest, by meeting with many of the U.S. troops who have been battling insurgents, suicide bombers and al-Qaida throughout northern Iraq. He also met with two top officers of the embattled Iraqi army.
His trip coincided with the end of the so-called military surge that began 18 months ago amid signs that insurgent attacks against U.S. troops have fallen significantly, even though sectarian violence between rival Sunni and Shiite factions — like the suicide bombings that occurred in and around Baghdad on Monday — continues. He was briefed by members of Special Forces units, and witnessed state-of-the-art surveillance technology keeping an around-the-clock watch on suspected terrorists. I accompanied him as he walked the deadly rubble-strewn streets of Baghdad's Sadr City and saw and heard evidence that Iraqi security forces are growing in size and ability and Iraq's political situation is stabilizing.
Attacks against U.S. troops, Iraqi forces are down Casey, who last visited Iraq in December, was told in briefings that I sat in on — at a half dozen bases in Baghdad and spread out over 1,500 square miles of northern Iraq — that attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces are sharply down in recent months and that the dispatch of 30,000 troops to Iraq last year has provided some badly needed breathing room in the fight against Islamic militants. But he also was reminded that the apparent gains from the surge are fragile and reversible, a point reinforced by many of the soldiers he met.
"My biggest struggle is developing the local economy," Lt. Col. Thomas Dorame, a young officer from California, said during a briefing at a remote base in rural Ninevah province where the outside temperature hovered around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. "I see the indicators, I see the hope in the future. But the number one issue is that the men in the villages are not employed. They've had three years of drought and no support from the government to create employment. And as long as there's unemployment, there will be men willing to work for the insurgency."
And Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of multinational troops in northern Iraq who accompanied Casey to a number of forward operating bases in the region, said that the number of attacks by al-Qaida forces in the region have gone down by half since February and many top al-Qaida leaders have been captured or killed. But he added, "We think 50 percent of the attacks are caused by unemployed people who are being paid to do something." Casey also was told that many young people have joined the insurgent forces, and that they are using new and more deadly kinds of weapons.
Casey reported his findings to President Bush after returning last Wednesday, when the president met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon to consider future U.S. strategy in Iraq — including the possibility of further troop reductions in the fall and sending some of the more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to Afghanistan. Casey's report undoubedly was a factor in Bush's announcement Thursday that combat tours for U.S. troops will be reduced to 12 months from 15 months as of Aug. 1.
Safely walked through an open market While in Baghdad, Casey backed up his assertion that the security situation has improved by visiting an open market adjacent to Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a sprawling slum that has been the scene of some of Baghdad's worst violence. Surrounded by armed security forces, he walked several blocks through the teeming market without incident as Iraqis looked on. An aide later described the visit as "extremely dangerous."
Casey's visit was overshadowed by soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama of Illinois, who stopped in Baghdad with fellow senators Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., during a high-profile trip to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe.
Casey was in Baghdad at the same time but did not meet with Obama, and he was careful to avoid commenting on Obama's call for setting a 16-month deadline for ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq while shifting some U.S. troops to battle the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "I don't want to talk about it," he told me, the lone reporter traveling with him. "I'll read about it when I get home."
Gen. Casey meets with soldiers.
Casey began his final day in Iraq by meeting with his successor as commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge strategy, at the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Although Patraeus declined my request to comment on his meeting with Obama or with Casey — as did Casey — it was clear that the main subject of the meeting was future U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers express multiple concerns Many of the men and women soldiers Casey met with expressed concern about the welfare of their families, their pay and benefits, their future in the Army, and whether they would have to serve more than one tour of duty in Iraq. When he asked for a show of hands from soldiers in a mess hall near Tikrit, two-thirds of the soldiers said they were serving their second or third tour of duty.
Casey emphasized at his meetings with troops that while the surge "has been a great success," it has also stretched the army to the breaking point. "When I took this job, I was hearing a lot in the press that the Army was hollowing out," he later told me. "That's not the case yet, but we certainly are stretched thin, and it's going to take us a year or so to recover our flexibility in our personnel system."
He added, "We've been doing a lot of thinking about the type of Army the country needs, and we believe that it's an Army that has the capability of operating across the whole spectrum of conflict, from major combat operations through irregular warfare. …What I personally am seeing on this visit is how we have learned as an army over the last five years or so in our understanding of irregular warfare."
Casey, whose father was an Army general killed in Vietnam, met with a group of young men and women soldiers at a combat outpost near the giant Balud Airbase north of Baghdad, and assured them that while the war has fallen off the front pages in the United States, the American people haven't forgotten the sacrifices they are making.
'Critical difference at a critical time' "You all may not appreciate this, but the great work that you all have done and the soldiers that came before you has really changed the way the people in the United States look at this mission. You've taken it off the front page, and you really have allowed the president to [pursue] his policies, which is very important to sustain our successes. So you really ought to feel good about that. You really have made a critical difference at a critical time in history."
He added, "There's huge support for the servicemen and women in the United States military, both in Congress and among the American people. And I can't go anyplace without people coming up and saying thanks to the men and women of the Army for what they're doing. They recognize that everywhere that I go. People seem to have found the ability to be against the war but not against the men and women of the armed forces, and they very much appreciate what you're doing for them."
Noting that he has been an "Army brat" for 60 years — he celebrated his 60th birthday at a base in Mosul last week — he said, "I have never seen this Army better in the 38 years I have been in it. And we are that way because of our values, because of our warrior ethos, and because of our people. And that's each and every one of you. And each and every one of you make this Army a little bit better every day. So good luck to you all, take care of each other, and God bless you." Albert Eisele, a former Washington correspondent for the Duluth News-Tribune and St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, is editor-at-large and founding editor of The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress.