The Scent of Fear

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

January 10, 2005

The assembly line of carnage in George W. Bush's war in Iraq continues unabated. Nightmares don't last this long, so the death and destruction must be real. You know you're in serious trouble when the politicians and the military brass don't even bother suggesting that there's light at the end of the tunnel. The only thing ahead is a deep and murderous darkness.

With the insurgency becoming both stronger and bolder, and the chances of conducting a legitimate election growing grimmer by the day, a genuine sense of alarm can actually be detected in the reality-resistant hierarchy of the Bush administration.

The unthinkable is getting a tentative purchase in the minds of the staunchest supporters of the war: that under the current circumstances, and given existing troop strengths, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies may not be able to prevail. Military officials are routinely talking about a major U.S. presence in Iraq that will last, at a minimum, into the next decade. That is not what most Americans believed when the Bush crowd so enthusiastically sold this war as a noble adventure that would be short and sweet, and would end with Iraqis tossing garlands of flowers at American troops.

The reality, of course, is that this war is like all wars - fearsomely brutal and tragic. The administration was jolted into the realization of just how badly the war was going by the brazen suicide bombing just a few days before Christmas inside a mess tent of a large and supposedly heavily fortified military base in Mosul. Fourteen American soldiers and four American contractors were among the dead.

Seven American soldiers were killed last Thursday when their Bradley armored personnel carrier hit a roadside bomb in northwestern Baghdad. Two U.S. marines were killed the same day in Anbar.

Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday of an ominous new development in Iraq. "We've noticed in the recent couple of weeks," he said, "that the I.E.D.'s [improvised explosive devices] are all being built more powerfully, with more explosive effort in a smaller number of I.E.D.'s."

Mr. Bush's so-called pre-emptive war, which has already cost so many lives, is being enveloped by the foul and unmistakable odor of failure. That's why the Pentagon is dispatching a retired four-star general, Gary Luck, to Iraq to assess the entire wretched operation. The hope in Washington is that he will pull a rabbit out of a hat. His mission is to review the military's entire Iraq policy, and do it quickly.

I hope, as he is touring the regions in which the U.S. is still using conventional tactics against a guerrilla foe, that he keeps in mind how difficult it is to defeat local insurgencies, and other indigenous forces, as exemplified by such widely varying historical examples as the French experiences in Indochina and Algeria, the American experience in Vietnam, the Israeli experience in Lebanon, and so on.

But even the fortuitously named General Luck will be helpless to straighten anything out in time for the Iraqi elections. The commander of American ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, made it clear last week that significant areas of four major provinces, which together contain nearly half the population of the entire country, are not safe enough for people to vote.

"Today I would not be in much shape to hold elections in those provinces," said General Metz.

With the war draining the military of the troops needed for commitments worldwide, the Pentagon is being forced to take extraordinary steps to maintain adequate troop strength. A temporary increase of 30,000 soldiers for the Army, already approved by Congress, will most likely be made permanent. The Pentagon is also considering plans to further change the rules about mobilizing members of the National Guard and Reserve. Right now they cannot be called up for more than 24 months of active service. That limit would be scrapped, which would permit the Army to call them up as frequently as required.

That's not a back-door draft. It's a brutal, in-your-face draft that's unfairly limited to a small segment of the population. It would make a mockery of the idea of an all-volunteer Army.

Something's got to give. The nation's locked in a war that's going badly. The military is strained to the breaking point. And it's looking more and more like the amateur hour in the places that are supposed to provide leadership in perilous times - the Pentagon and the White House.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com