In congressional testimony this week, the top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq reported what they called "real" but "fragile" progress, and urged caution in any discussion of further U.S. troop withdrawals, beyond the end of the surge in July. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon on the implications of the reports by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
General Petraeus said he has recommended a 45-day period of consolidation after the surge troops leave. He says only then, in early September, will he be able to even begin to assess whether he can send home more troops.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, pressed the general on just how long that assessment will take.
LEVIN: "Do you have any estimate at all as to how long that second period is going to take? Could that be a month? Could that be two months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, it could be less than that."
LEVIN: "Could it be more than that?"
PETRAEUS: "It could be more than that. Again, it's when the conditions are met that we can make a recommendation for further reductions."
LEVIN: "I understand, but I'm just asking you a direct question. Could that be as long as three months?"
PETRAEUS: "It could be, sir."
LEVIN: "Could it be as long as four months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, it is when the conditions are met."
And no one can say when that will be. Analyst Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security, who spent several weeks in Iraq earlier this year, says the general's caution reflects concerns among U.S. commanders throughout the country.
"It tells us that he and his commanders are comfortable with going to 15 brigade combat teams, but they're not comfortable committing to go beyond that," she said. "And I think that the request for a pause came from the bottom-up, from the various division commanders, and they want a six-week period to kind of see how the dust settles."
By the time that dust settles, Iraq is supposed to be preparing for provincial elections in October, to be followed in early November by the U.S. presidential election. Michele Flournoy says that is not a good time for U.S. troop withdrawals that could lead to instability.
"I think this administration is probably not going to go very far down that path," she added. "I think it's probably going to be left to the next president. Going into our own transition period, a time between Election Day and Inauguration Day, it's not a time when you want instability or a crisis in Iraq for a team that's departing or a team that's coming in to deal with right away."
When the surge ends, the United States will have 140,000 troops in Iraq. And more and more analysts are predicting that number will not be reduced much, if at all, by the time the new president takes office in January. General Petraeus' comments this week appear to justify that view.
That means the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq will remain a key issue in the presidential election campaign, and the U.S. military will continue to be strained by repeated, lengthy combat deployments. It also means there won't be many U.S. troops available to add to the coalition force in Afghanistan, which President Bush promised NATO allies his successor would do next year.
Still, in spite of some public opinion polls to the contrary, analyst Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation says he believes the American people will be willing to support a continued large U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
"The United States can keep 140,000 troops in Iraq as long as progress is being made," he said. "And I think the American people will accept more time for troops to be in Iraq to allow for the political developments to take effect."
Darling says this week's report by the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, indicates political progress is being made, although slowly. And analysts say only political accommodation among Iraqi factions can pave the way for long-term stability.
At the end of a long day of hearings on Tuesday, General Petraeus summed up his view of the situation in Iraq, five years after the U.S.-led invasion and more than a year after he took command and implemented the surge and a new counterinsurgency strategy.
"We haven't turned any corners," he said. "We haven't seen any lights at the end of a tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."
General Petraeus wants most of the rest of the year, at least, to make the progress stronger and less reversible. And it will likely be left to his successor, and President Bush's, sometime next year at the earliest, to turn the corner, see the light at the end of the tunnel and take that celebratory bottle of champagne out of the refrigerator.