When the top U.S. military official in Iraq said back in July that the United States could begin a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of troops as early as this coming spring, the prediction came wrapped in some pretty big "ifs."
Here's what Gen. George W. Casey said then about beginning to withdraw U.S. troops: "If the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer."
And here's what Gen. George W. Casey says now about beginning to withdraw U.S. troops: "I think right now we're in a period of a little greater uncertainty than when I was asked that question back in July and March. Until we're done with this political process here with the referendum and the elections in December, I think it's too soon to tell."
But wait, didn't George W. Bush go on television yesterday to talk about all the progress being made in Iraq? Yes, he did -- in a Rose Garden appearance with Casey at his side. The president talked about "the gains we've made in recent weeks and months," and he trumpeted the fact that "Iraqi and coalition forces tracked down and killed Abu Azzam, the second most wanted al-Qaida leader in Iraq." But Newsweek says that U.S. intelligence analysts and counterterrorism experts are questioning whether Abu Azzam was really the powerful al-Qaida-in-Iraq figure that the Bush administration says he is. And the rest of us are left wondering how to square the president's latest rosy pronouncement about Iraq with his general's assertion that things in the country are less certain than they were even two months ago.
Have conditions gotten so much worse in Iraq, or has Casey just grown more cautious? It's neither, at least if you think the same way that Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita talks. Asked yesterday whether Casey's comments didn't represent a pretty dramatically different outlook than the one he articulated just two months ago, DiRita said: "In July he had one assessment [about the number of troops needed in Iraq]. He has an assessment now that could still result in what he said earlier, it could result in no change, it could result in more."