Iraq is a test of will, Casey says

The top American military commander in Iraq says he is confident that U.S.-led coalition forces are following the right strategy to defeat the country’s vicious insurgency.

If Americans “don’t lose our will,” said Gen. George Casey Jr., the strategy will succeed against those fighting to prevent Iraq from forming a new national government.

But he cautioned that the outcome of the two-and-a-half-year-old war is far from certain and that there would be no significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in the near term. Instead, U.S. forces would be withdrawn gradually over the next couple of years as the Iraqi army is rebuilt.

“It’s not going to be somebody throws a switch and we’re all going to leave,” Casey said in a lengthy interview with The Hill.

The political situation in Iraq will enter a crucial stage later this month when Iraqis vote in an up-or-down referendum on whether to ratify a new constitution and, on Dec. 15, when they are scheduled to elect a new government. As the Oct. 15 referendum nears, violence has escalated to new levels as insurgent attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces become more frequent, sophisticated and deadly.

Casey expects the new Iraqi constitution to be approved, even though he predicted a “short-term spike” in terrorist bombings and insurgent violence aimed at defeating it.

Casey’s remarks came as he and Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of the overall war effort in the Middle East, were summoned to Washington last week to brief President Bush and his senior national-security aides and to reassure an increasingly skeptical Congress and the American public that U.S. forces are making steady, if slow, progress.

Casey, who returned to Baghdad yesterday, and Abizaid conducted a public-relations blitz last week, undertaking numerous media interviews and press conferences and testifying at length before the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

“The way I see things is, we make progress in Iraq every day, we do it in little steps, and we’re relentless about the progress,” Casey said during a visit to The Hill’s office. “But you don’t see big things happening all the time. This is a battle of wills, and they’re out to break the will of the Iraqi people and the wills of the coalition publics.”

Casey insisted of the insurgents, “They’re not succeeding in Iraq. They can only beat us if we lose our will. We’ve got the right strategy, and with a little patience and a little will we’ll ultimately be successful.”

The Bush administration and the military have pinned success in Iraq on the development of an Iraqi army to take the place of U.S. and coalition forces. The United States is training 107 Iraqi army and police battalions and, until Casey returned this week, three had been rated as Level One, or “fully capable” of acting on their own without U.S. support.

Casey told Congress that only one battalion is now rated as fully capable but said that should not be viewed as a setback. Declaring that the military “has set a very high standard” for Level One, he argued that progress depends on many factors, such as the quality of leadership and equipment, and that the number of battalions ready to fight without U.S. support will rise and fall over time.

He also declined to specify how many Iraqi battalions would be needed before U.S. troops are withdrawn. He faced tough questioning from several senators, notably John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

The Casey family has known war for two generations; his father, an Army general, was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Now a third generation could experience war. Ryan Casey, his 33-year-old son, who has a wife and two children, has enlisted in the Army Reserve and will begin basic training this month.

The general’s wife, Sheila, is The Hill’s chief financial officer.

 

An interview with Gen. Casey

Excerpts from interview with Gen. George Casey Jr., commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq:

Q: : How engaged is President Bush in the war in Iraq?

A: He’s very engaged. He’s very committed. He’s very supportive of what we’re doing. … He’s very much engaged with what’s going on in Iraq and in directing the strategy.

Q: In Iraq, which is the worse scenario: if the constitution fails or if it passes?

A: That’s very interesting. If it passes — and I think it will pass with over a very substantial Sunni majority — what I suspect at a minimum [is that] you’re going to see a short-term spike in kind of negative activity just to show their disapproval of what happened.

Q:  So you don’t see either way, if the constitution is approved or rejected, that it would increase the chances of a civil war?

A: Not a certainty; it’s not automatic. …

Q:  Concerning the Iraqi army, is there a number that needs to be able to act independently, without American help, before we can start withdrawing?

A: No. People have it in their heads that we have to get to a certain point before we can start bringing U.S. troops out. That’s not the case. … And so we will be able to start drawing down small units in small numbers still right after the elections, probably. And that will gradually pick up over time. …

Q:  Were you surprised at the tone of some of the fairly critical questions from lawmakers?

A: It’s interesting. I sensed a greater concern in June than I do this time, and I thought the questions were, with a few exceptions, reasonable, or they were the right questions.

Q:  Are you concerned about what appears to be evidence that public support for the war in Iraq is eroding, that the public may be losing patience with the war effort?

A: I know that’s what everybody is concerned about, but I personally am not overly concerned about it. I asked the soldiers before I left Iraq, “What do you want me to tell the folks back home?” And the answer I got back was, “Tell them the antiwar folks don’t speak for us. Sept. 11 won’t happen again. We’ll beat ’em here.” So that’s kind of the sentiment.

Q:  After 16 months as commander in Iraq, are you more or less optimistic about the success of the strategy you’ve laid out?

A: Over the long term, I really believe we’ve got the right strategy. We’re in a much better place this year than we were at this time last year. … There are clear signs that, one, we’re making clear progress with the Iraqi military, and two, the people are accepting the political process as a way of solving their differences. And that’s a key element in defeating the insurgency.

Q: What’s the one message you want to leave with Congress and the American public?

A: One, that we are making progress in Iraq. We’re making it in little steps but we’re relentless about it. And that this is a battle of wills, and they’re out to break the will of the Iraqi people and the wills of the [public in each country that make up the coalition]. And they’re not succeeding in Iraq. They can only beat us if we lose our will. We’ve got the right strategy. With a little patience and a little will, we’ll ultimately be successful.

Q: What do you think about your son Ryan enlisting in the Army Reserve?

A: I’m so proud of him, I really am.