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Col. Bill Cowan
It’s fair to assume that none of our American military men or women who served in Iraq during 2004 would say it’s been an easy year for them. We’ve faced a tougher battle than expected, we’ve seen our manpower resources strained, and we’ve seen problems getting our forces properly and adequately equipped. Through it all, however, our military has stayed the course, made endless sacrifices, and proven that those who are serving, are well on their way to becoming our nation’s next “greatest generation.”

In many respects, we should expect 2005 to be an equally difficult year in Iraq as violence continues to flare past the January elections. Relative calm in Shiite and Kurdish regions will allow us and fledgling Iraqi forces to shift assets and focus our efforts more diligently on those Sunnis who continue to wreak havoc against us and fellow Iraqis. We have already seen some Iraqi forces stand alongside us and fight tenaciously against the enemy in major engagements in Najaf, Samarrah, and Fallujah. It’s unlikely that there will be any more long, drawn out engagements such as these. Instead, we’ll be down to the grinding work of identifying, locating, and flushing out small groups of insurgents in the major cities of the Sunni Triangle and in Baghdad proper. Our Iraqi counterparts are likely to do well at the outset, as long as they know they’ve got our forces behind them to come to their aid if necessary. Over time, we’ll be called on less and less to support them. As they pick up the burden over the year, we’ll be able to start bringing forces home and easing the tempo. With luck, by year’s end we’ll be down to 50,000 troops.

Even as Iraq steadies out, however, the global war on terror will continue. Bin Laden’s days are numbered, and the right smidgen of intelligence in 2005 could lead us directly to him. Unfortunately, nabbing him will have little effect on what we’re now dealing with globally. Our long-term success against extremists around the world will be proven by the relationships we continue to build with foreign intelligence and security services who will serve as our own eyes and ears on the ground, until we are able to adequately recruit, train, and deploy our own assets.
The bottom line is that both in Iraq and elsewhere in the war on terror we’ll surely end 2005 in better shape than we enter it. But as always, there will be speed bumps, miscues, and losses along the way.

Col. Bill Cowan is a military analyst for FOX News Channel. A retired Marine Corps officer, Cowan spent three-and-a-half years on combat assignments in Vietnam.