A father in the American heartland agonizes as his son prepares for a second tour in Iraq.
Baghdad morgue workers wash bodies for burial after a suicide attack.
Army cadets study the shifting tactics of Iraqi insurgents for a battle they will inherit.
Snapshots from a war at its fifth year. Each distinct, each a narrative in itself — gnawing fear, raw violence, youthful resolve. Yet all linked by a single question.
How much longer?
Most likely, the war will go on for years, say many commanders and military analysts.
In fact, it’s possible to consider this just the midpoint. The U.S. combat role in Iraq could have another half-decade ahead — or maybe more, depending on the resilience of the insurgency and the U.S. political will to maintain the fight.
Iraq, experts say, is no longer a young war. Nor is it entering an endgame. It may still be in sturdy middle age.
“Four years, optimistically,” before the Pentagon can begin a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq, predicted Eric Rosenbach, executive director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “and more like seven or eight years” until Iraqi forces can handle the bulk of their own security.
What that means depends largely on your vantage point.
For the Pentagon, it’s about trying to build up a credible Iraqi security force while struggling to support its own troop levels in a military strained by nonstop warfare since 2001.
During a trip through the Persian Gulf last year, Adm. William Fallon, then head of U.S. Central Command, was peppered with as many questions about resources as about strategies moving ahead.
For many Americans, it’s about a rising toll — nearly 4,000 U.S. military deaths and nearly 30,000 wounded — with no end in sight. Iraqis count their dead and injured in much higher figures — hundreds of thousands at least — and see entire neighborhoods changed by the millions who have fled for safer havens.
For others, it’s about an ever-mounting loss of goodwill overseas: “We’ve squandered our good name,” said 29-year-old Ryan Meehan, sitting in a St. Louis coffee shop.
You also can frame the war in terms of the cost to the treasury: $12 billion a month by some estimates, $500 billion altogether, and the prospect of hundreds of billions more.
But then there are other measures of the war as it enters its sixth year.
These are more difficult to weigh — yet are just as real and profound. They are found in places such as Jim Durham’s home in Evansville, Ind.
He tries to fight off a sense of dread as he watches his 29-year-old son prepare for his second tour in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard.
Durham, 59, struggled to describe the emotions.
He decided: “It’s like watching somebody with a disease. Perhaps they can live, perhaps they can’t. Maybe they’ll survive. Maybe they won’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Echoes of the same lament resounded at a Shi’ite funeral procession in Baghdad, where mourners gathered their dead from the morgue — the bodies washed for burial according to Muslim custom — after bombings ravaged two pet markets last month.
“We are helpless. Only God can help us,” cried a group of women behind the shrouded corpses of several children.
“How much can Iraq endure? How much stamina do Americans have for a war with no end in sight?” said Ehsan Ahrari, a professor of international security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “These questions were relevant years ago. They only grow more critical as the years go by.”
“War fatigue is real, first and foremost because of casualties,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution. “But Americans also know the stakes.”
Still, some remain determined.
Ahrari recalls seeing a couple at the Gulfport, Miss., airport saying good-bye to their son, clad in desert camouflage and heading for Iraq. He said he can’t forget the mother’s face: grim but stoic.
“She did not seem sure that her son was going to the right place to serve America,” he wrote, “but that it was still a right thing to do.”
But then there was the group of women on a bridge in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., holding “No to War” placards and being alternately cheered and jeered.
And Catherine Lunsford Hanley, 26, of Roanoke, Va., who is so worried about her husband in Iraq that she is suffering hair loss and insomnia. Thinking that the war will continue — and maybe force a second deployment for her husband — makes it even worse.
“It’ll kill me if we have to go through this again,” she said.
Already, the war has lasted longer than the U.S. fights in World War II and Korea. And if many experts are to be believed, the Iraq war will follow about a 10-year arc, ending only after a new crop of soldiers — some now barely into their teens — is on the battlefield.
The halfway scenario is based on historical templates. Many military strategists cite a 9- to 10-year average for insurgencies, with expected drop-offs in recruitment and core strength after a decade.
But the models — analyzing battles from the British in Malaysia in the 1950s to the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s — also show that each fight is unique. Kurdish rebels have been fighting in Turkey more than 20 years, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have been active since the 1960s.
The fragmented nature of the Iraq fighting — what has been called a “mosaic war” — also may add years to U.S. involvement. The different tactics needed for various regions create difficulties in training Iraqi forces and making decisive strikes against insurgents, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
At West Point, professor Brian Fishman is an expert in Al Qaeda. The Iraq war, he said, now is fundamentally “a collection of local wars” to preserve key local alliances with Iraqi groups and keep pressure on insurgents from regaining footholds.
“Iraq is a fight that, no doubt, is evolving,” said Fishman after teaching his class for the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy. “But when you talk about some kind of end for American troops, it’s certainly in terms of years.”
The insurgency, however, may not be the most worrisome problem in coming years.
Some believe the worst struggle will be keeping friction between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites from ballooning into a civil war.
“I don’t know anyone who pays serious attention to Iraq who thinks that we are over the hump in terms of internal violence,” said Jon Alterman, the Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are a lot of unsettled scores and no ongoing political process that seems likely to address them.”
E&P Editor Greg Mitchell’s new book, the first probe of five years of the year, is titled “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.” To learn more or order, go to blog