Speaking on Fox News on March 20, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that he has no timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, reiterating what President Bush himself had said at his press conference just days before. Both men were reacting to the misguided buzz in Washington that successful Iraqi elections had paved the way for a significant drawdown of U.S. troops.

In fact, while the security situation on the ground is improving, it remains violent and chaotic. Insurgents massacre Iraqis every day, parts of the country still lack reliable supplies of electricity and water, and the process of establishing a permanent government, as heartening as it has been, could still break down into civil war. Moreover, the fledgling Iraqi security forces lack the numbers, training, and leadership to contain conflict without substantial outside assistance. In this environment, it makes no sense to believe that the elections opened the door for an early American exit. In fact, large numbers of American troops will likely be needed to secure Iraq long after Rumsfeld has left the Pentagon.

Many in both parties hope that increasingly self-sufficient Iraqi security forces can begin to replace coalition troops substantially within the next year or two. Despite boasting that Iraqi troops now number close to 150,000, Rumsfeld wisely refrained from supporting such wishful thinking. As an analyst with the General Accounting Office recently testified, the U.S. and Iraqi governments have no idea how to measure progress toward this goal, and Pentagon statistics may overstate the number of Iraqi security forces by "tens of thousands." In the past, the rush to fill Iraqi ranks came at the expense of proper training and equipment. But even if all these problems were magically remedied, there is another reason Rumsfeld cannot promise an early exit: a scarcity of Iraqi officers.

No matter how many Iraqi troops are trained in the coming months, Iraqi units will only be as good as the officers leading them. As Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of multinational forces around Mosul, recently put it, "When they [Iraqi forces] have strong leadership, they do just fine. When they have weak leadership, as we saw in the police force here in Mosul, they don't do well."

Any withdrawal of coalition forces, therefore, will depend on the establishment of a viable Iraqi chain of command, built from scratch. As Phebe Marr has pointed out, Saddam's army ran on loyalty, not military skill. Officers who did not show loyalty were passed over for promotion or purged. This loyalty-based system produced ineffective leaders who equated rank with privilege rather than responsibility. According to many American advisers in Iraq today, Iraqi commanders often avoid going out with their troops, expect substantial leave, and even steal funds from their units. As one U.S. major put it: "The majority of the officers of the old army are ineffective at best and a true cancer at worst."

Since simply readmitting former officers will not fill the leadership void, much of the future officer corps will need to come from today's inexperienced recruits. Training a typical soldier takes months; training a leader takes years. The current Pentagon strategy embeds U.S. advisers within Iraqi units to provide experience in the field, but preparing officers also requires proper facilities, academies, and time to develop skills and earn respect from lower-ranking soldiers.

NATO countries recently pledged to bolster their small training mission, but Washington should not anticipate much more from its allies. NATO countries have long promised to train Iraqis, but of the 144 training positions the alliance agreed to fill with non-Americans, 50 remain empty. In the Balkans and Afghanistan (missions many NATO countries actually supported) Europeans still ended up delivering only about 30 percent of the security forces they pledged. Worse, many coalition countries are pulling their troops out of Iraq, placing more responsibility for security on the United States.

Even under the best-case scenario, American forces will be needed to keep the lid on conflict for many years. That may startle those who want to believe that the successful elections in Iraq spell the end of America's commitment. But history suggests a long-term troop presence is predictable and sustainable. American soldiers remain deployed in large numbers in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and even Germany and Japan. Iraq will be no exception.

Advocates of near-term withdrawal may be right when they say this war is "unwinnable" in the sense that we cannot eradicate the insurgency. A more achievable goal is to keep the insurgency at bay, creating time and space for political progress. But until Iraqi security forces can operate independently, a full American commitment unconstrained by arbitrary timetables for withdrawal will be vital to a peaceful and democratic Iraq.

Michael Beckley is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.