STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The new American strategy in Iraq - the so-called surge - has put more troops on the ground in and around Baghdad. It's also put more troops in small neighborhood outposts where they're more vulnerable to attack, which is one reason the month of May has become the third deadliest for U.S. troops since the war began.
Their commander, General David Petraeus, will report back in September on whether this new strategy is working. Retired General Barry McCaffrey predicts that timeline could make for a violent summer.
General BARRY MCCAFFREY (International Affairs, West Point; U.S. Army, Retired): Every side has an incentive to fight as intensely as possible. We have this artificial hurdle - Petraeus will come back and explain to Congress how well he is doing. So every side will maneuver for apparent advantage to fit the political dynamics on the U.S. domestic scene.
MONTAGNE: That does not seem to be an optimistic assessment, then, of the winnability of this.
Gen. MCCAFFREY: Well, I'm not sure winnability is a word we ought to be using. I think what we're hopeful will happen is that the temporary security bubble provided by putting 160,000 U.S. forces into Iraq, by enhanced support for equipment for Iraqi security forces and better training. We're hopeful that those realities will back up a renewed sense of engagement for internal political reconciliation talks, and some of that is happening. The question is, is that going to really work? Will the American people sustain this effort long enough to have it succeed? Or can it succeed?
MONTAGNE: You know, let me quote you something that Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said to the LA Times recently. "We knew that one of the outcomes of the increased pressure in Baghdad was, you press them in the center, they ooze out the sides." In fact, a lot of the casualties have happened outside of Baghdad this past month and the insurgency is hitting back pretty hard.
Gen. MCCAFFREY: Well, yeah, I don't think you can isolate anything on the battlefield. I think General Petraeus correctly just said, look, if you can't dominate in Baghdad, you lose the struggle.
It's 20 percent of the population. It's a crossroads of the country economically, politically. So much of this so-called surge, which is a pretty modest presence, I mean, 30,000 troops among seven million Arabs arguably isn't much better than the NYPD does in New York City.
You know, I think there is some displacement of combatants. The bottom line, though, it's hard to imagine the next 90 days not being a period of the most intense struggle seen yet in Iraq.
MONTAGNE: Given what sounds like some pretty high casualty rates ahead, how long can General Petraeus test his strategy?
Gen. MCCAFFREY: Well, I don't think the casualty rates are going to decide the outcome. The real limiting factor is, how can we sustain 20 combat brigades in Iraq full-time and two or more in Afghanistan out of an army that is inadequately sized sustain this kind of effort?
MONTAGNE: Well, also the other clock, if you will, not the clock that the troops go by in Baghdad but the political clock back home, of the public and its support if casualties continue like this.
Gen. MCCAFFREY: Well, again, I honestly don't believe casualties will drive it. I think the American people walked away from the war already. What's going to drive this thing is, you know, the president has essentially got 24 months of reasonably unconstrained ability to conduct military operations in Iraq.
I don't believe Congress will actually significantly impair his ability to carry out military action. So what is going to constrain him is the U.S. Army and Marine Corps can't keep this up, and it's going to become increasingly apparent that we've wrecked our equipment and not replaced it.
We have inadequate manpower, we're going to have huge losses of our trained captains, staff sergeants, who are going to start getting out. And I think the Guard in particular, you'll see a real decrease in their readiness. So that's going to be increasingly apparent by the fall that this thing is coming apart on us.
But it's hard to imagine by September that there will be any underlying change in the nature of this civil war that we're trying to moderate. Maybe by January there might be a change. But it's hard to imagine why September is the magic date.
MONTAGNE: General, thank you very much.
Gen. MCCAFFREY: Okay.
MONTAGNE: Retired General Barry McCaffrey is adjunct professor of international affairs at West Point.
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