If Iraq's voters approve a constitution on Oct. 15, their democratic future appears more assured. Americans then can have a full-throated debate about bringing troops home. While setting a timetable for a drawdown would be risky, laying out bench marks for such steps is not.
The key bench mark - replacing American forces with Iraqi troops - seems like a moving target. The US effort to have Iraqis provide their own security and to hunt down insurgents has gone slowly since the 2003 invasion. Much distrust surrounds the Pentagon's claims of progress.
Last week, the Pentagon reduced its previous estimate of combat-ready Iraqi battalions from three to one. Army Gen. George Casey couldn't explain the drop, although he said 36 of some 100-plus battalions in training had reached the second highest readiness level. And he pointed to numbers that showed Iraqi forces were involved in more than 1,300 combined or independent operations last month, up from fewer than 200 last May.
Americans might well ask: So is there progress or not?
The Pentagon tried to recover the readiness-information fumble this week, and President Bush pointed to improved Iraqi troop strength in a sweeping speech on the war on terrorism Thursday. But the president and top US military commanders need to be more definitive and forthcoming about the real state of capable Iraqi forces. Credible and regular reports on these forces would help shore up the US support for the war, which has been declining steadily.
Given the anxiety about the endgame in Iraq and a US death toll reaching 2,000, Americans deserve to know. It would be just as important to hear daily reports on Iraqi readiness as the number of American body bags coming from Iraq.
One sign of progress is a Pentagon draft "drawdown plan" that reportedly spells out levels of troop withdrawal depending on three conditions: the state of the insurgency, Iraq's political progress, and the readiness of Iraqi forces.
With insurgent attacks expected to escalate before the referendum, the number of American troops has been raised to 149,000. By the time of the parliamentary election in January, the Pentagon claims there will be 100,000 Iraqi troops ready to defend the polls. If that proves true, the number suggests a US drawdown could begin shortly after.
The sooner the better, because the US military presence in Iraq has attracted more insurgents, estimated to be 20,000 strong. Fortunately, though, attacks are largely limited to a few Sunni-dominated provinces and Baghdad. At best, the US military helps stabilize the country enough for people to vote and win the real battle: a legitimate new government that can run its own military and undercut insurgent support.
A too-rapid US withdrawal with an unstable Iraqi government would leave the country vulnerable to a coup attempt by insurgents. But a steady drawdown over the next year, pegged to bench marks, might just help reduce terrorist recruitment and force the Iraqi military to take more responsibility for the country's security.
Creating an Iraqi democracy from scratch in the midst of war isn't easy. But American public support is critical to the effort, and the more honest the information, the easier it could be.