By John McCaslin

Stay the course
    Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey — who helped then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell command U.S. troops during 1991's Operation Desert Storm and has been sharply critical of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for denying the harsh "reality" in Iraq today — says Iraqi elections slated for Jan. 30 must proceed as planned.
    Still, the retired four-star Army general, now a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Military Academy , yesterday said "it is hard to imagine ending up with a legitimate government, operational economy and decent security forces" in Iraq for at least two years and possibly as many as 10 years.
    "Backing off the election is a very risky proposition," said Gen. McCaffrey, calling it a critical "way station en route to an uncertain objective."
    "My judgment is, if we back off the election, or any other way stations, [insurgents] will take to the streets and ultimately drive the remainder of our allies out of Iraq," he said.
    It is equally important, he added, to keep neighboring allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait focused on seeing the elections through. Then, in a postelection period, the U.S. military must continue its arduous, often bloody task of "thinning out our enemies."
    With 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground, "it is impossible to imagine any combination of insurgent forces" could defeat U.S. resolve to bring stability to the country. Nevertheless, and while calling his numbers "soft," he estimated 80,000 armed insurgents presently are battling U.S. troops in Iraq, with another 5 million Sunnis and Shias supporting the rebel forces.
    At the same time, he made clear that he fully supports President Bush's initiatives in Iraq, if not the president's Pentagon chief orchestrating the military operation.
    "Leaving Saddam [Hussein] in office was unacceptable, and if we had left him there, five years from now we'd have rued the day we lost our will," he said. "President Bush's political and moral courage taking us to war will pay off in the end, [although] this is not going to be easy in the short term."
    He also predicted that if Mr. Bush levels with Congress and the public on the obvious obstacles that the United States faces in Iraq, "I think the American people will want to stay the course."
    Regarding his recent public criticism of Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. McCaffrey yesterday referred to "serious misjudgments by Secretary Rumsfeld" in leading troops, particularly the war's first phase, when Iraqi resistance was underestimated and U.S. troop strength proved inadequate.
    "Not much is gained by enumerating. That's past history," he said. "Now it is how we move forward. We need fresh thinking and courage."