Gates Clouds Iraq-Troop Debate

April 11th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Gates Clouds Iraq-Troop Debate

Wall Street Journal
April 11, 2008
Pg. 3
Withdrawal Hopes Conflict With Call For Indefinite Halt
By Yochi J. Dreazen
WASHINGTON -- The debate over U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq grew murkier as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped more forces could depart this fall -- just hours after President Bush backed a call to halt the drawdown over the summer.
Mr. Gates acknowledged the apparent conflict between his remarks and the call by Gen. David Petraeus for an indefinite halt to any further troop withdrawals after the last of the 30,000 "surge" soldiers return to the U.S. in July. This week, Gen. Petraeus pointedly refused to give lawmakers any sense of how much time he might need before he could recommend further troop withdrawals.
The defense secretary said he and Gen. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, were effectively saying the same thing in different words. Mr. Gates said he expected Gen. Petraeus to make a further assessment of conditions in Iraq in September and that further withdrawals could take place if the general finds Iraq's security situation had held steady or improved.
"The hope is conditions on the ground will allow us to reduce our presence further this fall," Mr. Gates said.
The exchanges highlighted how the Bush administration's Iraq policy is being driven by a pair of competing dynamics: maintaining as many troops in Iraq as possible to increase the odds of success there while looking for ways to reduce the military's enormous and growing manpower strains.
Mr. Bush said Gen. Petraeus could "have all the time he needs" to make decisions about troop reductions. The president also said military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan would fall from 15 months to 12 months, formally announcing a decision that senior military officials had first disclosed last month.
The number of U.S. soldiers is slated to fall to 140,000 by July, and senior Defense Department officials had once talked of bringing the number down to 100,000 by the end of the year.
Although Iraq's violence has subsided markedly in recent months, Gen. Petraeus testified this week that the gains were fragile and could be easily reversed if troop levels fell too quickly. Mr. Gates told a Senate panel that he no longer thought it was possible for the number of soldiers to fall to 100,000 this year. Gen. Petraeus reiterated Thursday that U.S. troop levels should hold steady for at least the foreseeable future to prevent Iraq's security situation from deteriorating.
Speaking to reporters, Gen. Petraeus and the American ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, warned that violence in Iraq could increase in coming months as the surge troops depart and Iraqis prepare for provincial elections in October.
"It is indeed possible that as these elections approach, tensions are going to rise," Mr. Crocker said. "There is at least the prospect of violence."
Mr. Bush, speaking in front of an audience of military veterans at the White House, acknowledged that "serious and complex challenges" remained in Iraq and that the war there would require "sacrifices...for some time to come."
Still, the president said the surge had dramatically improved Iraq's security situation and revived "the prospect of success" in Iraq.
The president's remarks had a secondary purpose, signaling to the military audience, several of whom have publicly warned about the overall health of the armed forces, that Mr. Bush and his advisers are willing to take steps to reduce the manpower strains.
The 15-month tours are enormously unpopular among military personnel and their families, and Mr. Bush said that soldiers deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan after Aug. 1 would again serve 12-month tours, the norm for most years of the two wars.
"The stress on our force is real," Mr. Bush acknowledged.
The move to shorten the combat tours has been expected since late February, when Army Chief of Staff George Casey told a Senate panel he planned to make such a reduction over the summer.
Gen. Casey has been one of the loudest voices within the Pentagon warning that the military was unable to continue the current operational tempo, under which soldiers serve in Iraq for 15 months, return to the U.S. for one year, then return to either Iraq or Afghanistan for another lengthy tour.
"The current demand for our forces is not sustainable," Gen. Casey told a House panel Thursday. "We can't sustain the all-volunteer force at the pace that we are going on right now."
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that the military's need to focus solely on the counterinsurgency tactics currently being used in Iraq was leaving it less prepared for other types of conflict.
"Six years of war has certainly sharpened one side of our sword," he said. "But the other side of the blade, the major-combat and full-spectrum side, has been dulled by atrophy."
Mr. Gates, meanwhile, acknowledged the strains on the armed forces but told lawmakers that Gen. Petraeus's recommendations for suspending the troop withdrawals this summer, at least temporarily, had received the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the officers heading the military's Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Some have lamented what they believe was an unwillingness to listen to our military professionals at the beginning of this war," he said. "I hope that now people will not dismiss as irrelevant the unanimous views of...all of the nation's most-senior military officers."

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