War strain in Iraq may speed troop cuts
To ease the Army's burden, Gates said Friday he hopes 10 brigades could leave Iraq by the end of 2008.
The strain of the war in Iraq is increasingly forcing senior Pentagon leaders to be blunter about the military's inability to sustain war operations indefinitely, a shift in tone that may mean more troops come home sooner.Skip to next paragraph
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The change comes as the security situation in Iraq looks much improved over even six months ago. It also comes under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has welcomed candor from his commanders. As a result, senior leaders have taken advantage of the situation to make a more public case that the military, especially the Army, can no longer afford the luxury of sustained military operations in Iraq.
The Pentagon is already taking steps to draw down forces. Currently, there are about 165,000 American troops in Iraq, which includes about 20 combat brigades. By next summer, the plan is to return five combat brigades, or about 20,000 troops.
But a push is under way to bring home even more by the end of next year. Last Friday, Secretary Gates reiterated his hope that five additional combat brigades could be sent home by December 2008.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is expected to return to Washington in March to give his assessment of US military operations, which will inform the debate about the drawdown for next year.
"My hope has been that the circumstances on the ground will continue to improve in a way that would, when General Petraeus and the chiefs and Central Command do their analysis in March, will allow a continuation of the drawdown at roughly the same pace as the first half of the year," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last Friday.
Since Gates assumed his job a year ago, he has been an advocate of both improving security in Iraq while also lessening the strain on US forces. But increasingly, the Pentagon's war policy appears to be driven by the reality that the Defense Department, especially the Army, simply can't continue to deploy soldiers at the current pace.
Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff and the former senior commander in Iraq, has been particularly frank about the state of the Army.
"We're deploying at unsustainable rates," General Casey said three weeks ago during remarks to an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The Army agreed to a buildup of troops a year ago with the understanding that it was temporary, he said. "We can't sustain that. We have to come off of that, and we're working that very hard."
The strains on the Army are nothing new. When President Bush announced a new approach for Iraq last year, the thinking was that, despite the problems the Army was facing, it was more important to try to get it right in Iraq. And so another 30,000 troops were moved into combat. Top officials say drawing down troops is still "conditions-based." But there is also recognition that the Army can't go on this way much longer, deploying troops multiple times for 15-month tours.
One retired general who remains close to the situation sees a shift in which the impact of operations in Iraq is beginning to dictate the policy, not the other way around.