WE MUST WIN the war in Iraq or face dire consequences. News from Baghdad the past few days suggests the insurgents have the upper hand.
While the insurgency may be more effective in some areas than others, it's self-evident the insurgents have the momentum in critical regions where they can bomb, assassinate and intimidate without effective interference. Collapse of the insurgency seems unlikely, at least in the near term.
Whether or not the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq are postponed, it's not clear how long it will take for the initiative to shift in our favor. Time is short. There's talk among some prominent retired Army generals that our withdrawal will begin after the election, regardless of the turmoil we leave behind, because it's time to get out before it resembles Vietnam. I hope this sentiment isn't embraced in the White House.
My fear is that unilateral withdrawal would spell disaster for the United States and the West as well as for nonviolent Iraqis and others in the region likely to be Osama bin Laden's next target.
Nothing we do should encourage Islamic extremists, lest they find increased support for renewed attacks against our country and institutions. While most European nations may not be fighting at our side, those with large Muslim populations understand the ominous implications of a fundamentalist victory. Bin Laden makes no effort to hide his agenda. Terrorist attacks in Europe may be little more than rehearsals for assaults in North America.
There seems to be an attitude in Washington that the best way to avoid repeating the Vietnam experience is to bring the troops home sooner rather than later. There's no way to disguise this retreat as a victory. We can hardly expect the Abu Musab al-Zarqawis or bin Ladens to cooperate with us. The jihadists have become too strong and too successful to stop while victory seems close at hand.
We are faced with a dilemma: Finish the job we started, whatever it takes, or call it quits now. The latter is potentially more dangerous, risky and costly than the former. Think clash of civilizations, with the first round going to those who have the greater stomach for the fight. The inaugural balls in Washington will be festive, but not for those waiting for the next shoe to drop in Baghdad.
For nearly two years, the military team we've fielded with high expectations has yielded mixed results. The failures have been political, not military.
When things weren't going well during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln recognized a need for change and put Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in command over more-senior yet less-successful subordinates. Most historians think this was a wise decision. Today, the major decisions are made not by generals but by senior appointees in the Pentagon.
A highly decorated soldier and friend from Vietnam days, now retired, shares my exasperation: "The president, no doubt, has been told that this war is a disaster for U.S. policy, a disaster for our military that has fought hard for a flawed policy and a disaster for future presidents who cry 'wolf' when the wolf is, indeed, at the door."
This brutal assessment is widely shared.
To his credit, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, says the Reserves can't sustain much more than they have already, so great is the strain on his force.
"Most importantly," he wrote the Army chief of staff, "I wish to advise you of my deepening concern over the effects of current policies and practices on the readiness of the Army Reserve as a capable military force."
I'm an old soldier with two tours in Vietnam who helped build a new Army in the wake of a war that virtually destroyed the old one. If the Reserve force is fracturing, the force is fracturing all over. The only way I know to reverse this downward spiral is to install a new leadership team.
Now more than ever, the nation needs President Bush's leadership without regard for the personalities concerned. Presidents Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with similar crises, took risks advancing General Grant and Gen. George S. Patton from obscurity into power, prominence and, most of all, success.
Mr. Bush should set personal loyalties aside and consider what's best for the nation. He should consider replacing key policy people in the Pentagon. Can he really expect those who papered over past problems in Iraq to fix them now? We need fresh, strong faces in key positions as soon as he can find them. There's no other way to turn this mess around. It's in the nation's vital interest to win the war.
Charles A. Krohn, who retired from the Army in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel, is the Howard R. Marsh visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan.