Casey refutes Iraq pessimism
The outgoing U.S. commander in Baghdad yesterday broke with his superiors, including President Bush, by telling a Senate committee he does not agree with their dire assessments that the Iraq war is failing.
"I do not agree that we have a failed policy," Army Gen. George Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee in confirmation hearings for him to be the next Army chief of staff.
Questioned by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Gen. Casey repeatedly defended his 21/2-year command, conceding that Baghdad fell into cycles of relentless killing during his term and that "the situation is definitely deteriorating in Baghdad." But he said much of Iraq has made progress.
"I believe the president's new strategy will enhance the policy that we have," he said of Mr. Bush's Jan. 10 plan to send 21,500 additional troops into Iraq, most to Baghdad.
As Gen. Casey testified, a bipartisan group of senators put the finishing touches on a nonbinding resolution opposing Mr. Bush's troop boost. Sponsored by Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, and backed by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and Armed Services Committee chairman, the measure would also oppose a cutoff of war funds, an action demanded by some anti-war liberals.
It was not clear yesterday whether Mr. Warner has the 60 votes needed to clear the resolution for a floor vote.
Gen. Casey broke with comments by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has said the United States is not winning, and with Navy Adm. William Fallon, who told the same committee this week that the strategy was not working. Adm. Fallon is to be the next Middle East commander.
The general did not stop there. Asked about Mr. Bush's assessment that his Iraq policy was headed to "slow failure," Gen. Casey said, "I actually don't see it as a slow failure. I actually see it as slow progress."
Mr. McCain announced he had strong reservations about confirming Gen. Casey. First, he said the four-star officer continued to give him optimistic assessments on Iraq violence, only to see bloodshed increase each time. Second, he said both of Gen. Casey's campaigns to bring down violence in the capital failed in the summer and last fall because troops did not hold the neighborhoods they cleared of Shi'ite and Sunni insurgents.
"The result of these and other missteps have been unprecedented levels of violence in Iraq and a pervasive lack of security that prohibits political and economic activity," the senator said.
When Mr. McCain read a 2004 quote from Gen. Casey saying Iraq forces would be able to take over security and curb violence by December 2005, the witness responded, "That obviously has not panned out."
The general defended himself repeatedly. He said some of his favorable predictions came before al Qaeda bombed the Shi'ite golden dome mosque in Samara a year ago. U.S. commanders blame the attack for provoking Shi'ite reprisals, and then Sunni counterattacks that swelled into constant killings in and around Baghdad.
The senator also clashed with the general on troop strength.
Gen. Casey, who last fall opposed any troop increase because he wanted the Iraqis to take over security, said he recommended only two additional brigades during the White House review. Mr. Bush opted for five.
But he endorsed the ultimate plan, saying, "I believe that this five-brigade plan gives great flexibility" to his successor, Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus.
He said he does not consider Iraq a failure because all but three of 18 provinces -- Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala -- experience relatively low levels of violence. He also said the Iraqi Security Force has taken control of some regions.
"We just have a fundamental disagreement, General Casey, with facts on the ground and with what has happened in Iraq over now one of the longest wars in our history and where we are today," said Mr. McCain, who advocated an even bigger troop increase than the Bush plan.
Gen. Casey also differed with Adm. Fallon, who is to oversee Iraq as commander of U.S. Central Command, on whether the central question of whether the new strategy will work.
"I believe that it can work," he told Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and a hawk on Iraq.
Adm. Fallon had specifically declined to endorse the plan during his confirmation hearing.
As Army chief of staff, Gen. Casey would switch from commanding troops in the field to making sure they are recruited and equipped. He would take over an Army that has been hard-pressed to fight in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since March 2003.
Pressed by commanders, Mr. Bush has approved increasing the active Army to 540,000 soldiers and adding billions of dollars to replace worn-out weapon systems.
"But from what I see in Iraq, senator, the Army is far from broken," said Gen. Casey. He was the Army's No. 2 general when tapped by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as the first four-star officer to run Iraq.
"I have mentored three Iraqi prime ministers in political-military interactions. I've dealt with three different ambassadors, four coalition corps commanders. I have learned an awful lot about strategic leadership," Gen. Casey said.