BENCHMARKS IN IRAQ….The LA Times tells its readers today that our field commanders in Iraq have decided the pro-withdrawal argument makes sense after all:

During a trip to Washington, the generals said the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.

For all these reasons, they said, a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops was imperative. “This has been hinted at before, but it’s a big shift for them to be saying that publicly,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Timetables for withdrawal are still out of the question, of course, but General George Casey provided the closest thing we’ve heard yet at a press conference on Friday. He was telling reporters that rather than focusing on the current number of Iraqi battalions trained to “Level 1” proficiency ? a figure that’s declined from three to one ? they should focus on the rate of improvement instead:

GEN. CASEY: First of all, we purposely set a very high standard for the first level….We set that standard knowing full well that it was going to be a long time before all Iraqi units got in that category. And so the fact that there’s only one or three units, that is not necessarily important to me right now. Next year at this time, I’ll be much more concerned about it. Right now I’m not.

….Q: How quickly ? do you expect other units to quickly move from stage two to stage one? Or do you think that will be a long time?

GEN. CASEY: I think it will be a while. I think before we see much movement from two to one, it’s going to be a couple of months.

So that’s it from the horse’s mouth. We should expect to see a noticeable increase in Level 1 battalions by December, and the absolute numbers should be significant by September 2006. Donald Rumsfeld’s mantra is that “the numbers are interesting, but the soft stuff, the things you can’t quantify, are as important or more important,” but eventually the soft stuff has to lead to hard results. Casey’s statements are the closest thing to a benchmark we’ve gotten out of the Pentagon, and it’s something we should hold them to.

Of course, what I’d really like to see is the “wide-ranging U.S. military plan for reducing forces in Iraq” mentioned here. At the moment, though, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

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