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Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey speaks at the Land Combat Expo.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey speaks at the Land Combat Expo. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Despite the Pentagon’s “childish assumptions” going into a war it has “played on the cheap,” the Iraq war is still likely to end successfully, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. But McCaffrey said Friday in an interview at U.S. Army Europe’s Land Combat Expo 2005 that success depends on the Iraqis’ ability to form a government that can resolve conflicts, an Iraqi military force of some 250,000 troops and continued U.S. economic support.

“What we’re interested in is not solving these great chasms between Shia and Sunni,” he said. “We’re interested in helping them hammer out an agreement to resolve these chasms politically …

“We’re going to end up with a federal government or a civil war.”

McCaffrey, who at the time he retired was the most decorated four-star in the U.S. Army, has long been critical of the way senior Defense Department officials went into the war, assuming they could defeat an army and pacify a large country with far fewer troops than he says generals said they needed.

“They were childish in their assumptions,” he said of Pentagon officials. “They looked at [former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric] Shinseki and said, ‘What the hell does he know?’ They were so sure of their judgments, they got us into terrible difficulty.”

McCaffrey, who has taught at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and who commanded the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) in the Persian Gulf War, said he was optimistic that Iraq could be stabilized — but that many things could go wrong.

Among the problems he sees is a “meltdown” of National Guard troops nearing the end of their required service. The Guard is already 7,000 troops short, he said.

“A year from now, across the Guard, you’ll see E-3s disappearing. Because the active-duty Army and Marine Corps are so low that we’ve called up an organization that wasn’t designed to do that [repeated combat zone deployments]. If they had wanted to do that, they would have joined the Army Rangers,” he said.

As a result, McCaffrey estimates that the 17 brigades now in Iraq will be drawn down to 10 by the end of next summer.

“We’re going to see 10, win, lose or draw,” he said, “so we’d better be winning. We better hope the Iraqis pull their political institutions together [and] if the Shia rise up in rebellion, we are in trouble.”

McCaffrey said there already was a civil war in Iraq – with Sunnis trying to regain power.

That war, of most concern to the U.S., is one of three wars going on in Iraq, McCaffrey said.

The second, he said, was the foreign jihadists which he said was “strategically irrelevant” to the U.S. McCaffrey said the jihadist suicide bombers initially scared off Iraqi Security Force recruits, but that now recruit lines stretch around the block after a bombing.

The third war is Iraq’s increase in criminality — with murders, rapes and kidnappings — that McCaffrey said he believes will foster anti-democratic forces but a stronger federal government.

McCaffrey, who is in Heidelberg to give the expo’s keynote address, said he had supported the Iraq war and still does, and that U.S. troops had performed admirably.

“These terrific kids — they’re so courageous,” he said.

Still, he said, their performance had come in spite of the decisions of their civilian leaders.

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