WASHINGTON – It seemed like a routine question, one which military leaders involved in prosecuting the war in Iraq must ask themselves with some regularity: Is the U.S. winning?
But for Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff known for his straight-shooting bluntness, it proved a hard one to answer.
During a Capitol Hill briefing Friday for an audience mostly composed of congressional aides, Schoomaker paused for more than 10 seconds after he was asked the question, lips pursed and brow furrowed, before venturing: “I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.”
It was a small but telling window into the thinking of the Army’s top uniformed officer and one of the military’s most important commanders: Despite the progress being made by the new Iraqi government and despite the continuing improvement of local security forces, the outcome in Iraq, in many ways, is only growing more uncertain by the day.
“The challenge … is becoming more complex, and it’s going to continue to be,” Schoomaker mused. “That’s why I’ll tell you I think we’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end of all this.”
The Army’s top commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, acknowledged earlier this week that the recent spike in sectarian violence in Baghdad might mean the U.S. has to increase the number of soldiers in the Iraqi capital – rather than the long-awaited decrease commanders had hoped for.
For his part, Schoomaker was quick to note that his uncertainty did not equate to pessimism. He noted that creation of the new Iraqi government was an important achievement, although he cautioned that convincing Iraqis to use nonviolent political means to achieve their ends instead of guns and bombs will be a “tough shift.”
“I think we are making significant progress; I think the challenges continue to come,” he said, the audience hushed. “I do not believe that we are losing, but where I think we are on the scale of winning is very difficult, and time’s going to tell.”