Deploying for 'The New Normal'

Britain has decided to declare stability in southern Iraq and get out of the Shiite power struggles in Basra. In Afghanistan, an urgent need to recruit local police officers whose loyalty to the NATO-backed Kabul government is uncertain tempers ambitions to build an integrated national police force.

The search for "local solutions" is accelerating across the Middle East and Central Asia as U.S. and allied forces assess the high cost of the two shooting wars they are waging against religious extremists and other insurgents. Broad goals of nation-building and the promotion of democracy are being sidelined in favor of settling for stability where it can be found or created in hopes of expanding it later.

"The growth of local solutions is consistent with nation-building," asserts Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, head of Britain's defense staff, as he explains the Basra redeployment. But he also acknowledges that "a shift in emphasis to local solutions" is underway. So do the words and actions of American military leaders.

The U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar province provides another clear example of the adjustments that Western commanders are making across the region as they apply the difficult and costly lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan -- and react to the personal and political turmoil at home those conflicts bring.

Pentagon leaders have, in fact, shifted to talking of "an era of persistent conflict" rather than "the long war," a phrase that implied a military-dominated struggle with distinct battlefields and a clearly defined end. Today that sounds downright optimistic.

"Persistent conflict" -- where civilian populations, not armies, are the main targets of enemy destruction and allied protection far into the future -- is "the new normal," Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee last month. The Army must remake itself with that in mind, he added.

With the conflict in Afghanistan entering its seventh year, the United States has now been at war without resorting to a draft for longer than any time since the American Revolution. In House testimony, Casey and Army Secretary Pete Geren acknowledged that the current deployment schedule for Iraq is unmanageable for the Pentagon -- and for the soldiers' families left behind.

The ability of the United States to keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan now depends as much on the military's planning efforts and the management skills of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as it does on the promises of the 2008 presidential contenders, even though the former get a fraction of the attention devoted to the latter.

Gen. David Petraeus's search for a local solution in Anbar province is the make-or-break throw of the dice for current U.S. strategy. With the surge in forces there, Petraeus has committed maximum resources against al-Qaeda. He must now pray that the effort will stick when he begins to draw down troops in the spring. He cannot sustain or repeat the offensive with the Army that exists today.

In that sense at least, this autumn may represent the end of the beginning of the effort by the United States and its allies to use military force to deny sanctuary to global terrorist networks in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Winston Churchill coined "the end of the beginning" in 1942 to describe the Allied campaign in North Africa that stemmed the tide of uninterrupted Nazi military success. Nothing was sure about the eventual outcome then, and that is true today.

But the American presence has bought the military hard-won experience in expeditionary warfare in an unfamiliar region where U.S. vital interests will be engaged for a generation and more. It is a moment to apply that experience successfully or else -- to paraphrase the late Sen. George Aiken on Vietnam -- declare stability and get out.

A fatal flaw in the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been to insist too long on an illusory national unity enforced from Baghdad and to refuse to let Iraqis find their own messy, at times violent, ways of resolving their internal conflicts.

Britain's phased reduction down to 2,500 troops by next summer and their stationing away from cities may become "an interesting lab test, if you will, for what might have to be done on a wider, more industrial scale across Iraq," Stirrup explained to me and my Post colleague Kevin Sullivan.

"We are not a nation that has global garrisons, even if we have a global perspective," Stirrup added. "We have succeeded in enabling the Iraqis to run this bit of their country themselves."

Jim Hoagland