"Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad."
President Bush, speaking on 9/11, had a point. Even some who believe the invasion of Iraq to have been a strategic blunder concede that, if Americans head for the exit ramp, the consequences could be catastrophic. Terrorists could wind up with a safe haven in western Iraq not unlike Osama bin Laden's old base camp in Afghanistan pre-9/11.
The other potential consequences? The breakup of Iraq, a Shia-Sunni bloodbath spreading across the Middle East, the massacre of the men and women who cast their lot with America, a Turkish invasion of Kurdistan, an Islamic perception the United States had been routed and a Shia-dominated Iraq under the influence of Iran.
This would be a strategic disaster that would demoralize our few remaining friends in the region and embolden our enemies. It would be a victory for bin Laden, al-Qaida and Islamists greater than the expulsion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
Yet, according to the senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, Anbar -- the Sunni province that is 30 percent of the country, contains Ramadi and Fallujah, and borders on Jordan and Syria -- is virtually lost. Local governments have collapsed, the national government has no presence, U.S. forces are unable to conduct extensive operations.
Every American must hope that Bush's goals, an Afghanistan and an Iraq that are democratic, pro-American and enlisted in the cause of fighting terror, are attained. But we have reached a point where rhetoric must be set aside and realities faced: We face a real prospect of defeat in both wars.
But if we are to prevent that, how many more troops, casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars, for how many years, will victory require? Are we willing to pay the price? And if we are unwilling -- November may give us the answer -- are we prepared for the consequences of a U.S. defeat in either or both nations?
Make no mistake: U.S. forces are not in any imminent danger of being defeated or driven out. But in both countries, the situation is at its worst since U.S. forces went in, and deteriorating, though we have spent five years in Afghanistan and more years in Iraq than we needed to crush Hitler.
In Afghanistan, the incidence of attacks on towns, villages and NATO-Afghan forces has never been higher. Pakistani troops have been pulled out of border provinces, giving the resurgent Taliban a privileged sanctuary. The IEDs our troops face are more powerful and sophisticated. A suicide bomb attack has been mounted on the U.S. embassy.
Germany, Turkey, Spain and Italy are refusing a U.S.-NATO request for 2,500 more troops. The French, too, are balking. Yet Afghanistan is the decisive test of the post-Cold War NATO alliance.
While we have not lost the war, we have not won it. And victory in Afghanistan will require more American boots on the ground. Meanwhile, reconstruction is behind schedule, funds have not been forthcoming, poppy production is exploding, drug lords are aiding the Taliban and Afghans are losing confidence in a U.S.-Kharzi victory.
As for Iraq, the transfer of U.S forces to Baghdad appears to have stemmed the horrible body count of Iraqis, which was running at over 100 a day. But Anbar has apparently reverted, the Kurds are taking down the Iraqi flag and putting up the flag of an independent Kurdistan, and Shia militants are dividing over whether to hold the nation together, or let it break apart.
While U.S. casualties have diminished as Shia and Sunni dead soar in the sectarian terror, 60 percent of all Americans now believe Iraq was a mistake and want U.S. withdrawals. Considering that America has lost fewer men in Iraq than in the Filipino insurrection of 1899-1903, which some almanacs do not even list as an American war, this tells us something about our times, our leaders, our beliefs and ourselves.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, America appears to have three options. Put in more U.S. troops and go all-out for the victory of which President Bush speaks. Stay the course, which holds no promise of victory or of any early end to either war. Begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and accept the consequences, which could well be what the president warns -- calamitous.
The decision is up to Bush and the new Congress, but also to us. No matter which decision we make, Americans are headed for a long, dark night of recriminations not unlike the Truman-McCarthy era.