A rift over U.S. troop cuts in Iraq
While General Petraeus is in no hurry for more than five brigades to leave, Secretary Gates weighs a bigger drawdown.
President Bush has declared that the planned troop drawdown in Iraq is "on track," but within the Defense Department, signs of disagreement are emerging over how much further US forces can be cut later this year. At issue is how much of a drawdown is possible after the expected departure of five combat brigades from Iraq this summer.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Bush, who is in his last year in office, and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, appear to be in no rush to reduce the number of troops any further. This is in the hope of ensuring that the improved security environment in Iraq stays that way. But some in the Defense Department, quietly led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, say that while the security gains in Iraq are to be carefully guarded, there is only so much the troops can do.
They also see a limit to how many forces can be sent again and again to the war, now in its fifth year. Currently, about 160,000 US forces are in Iraq, including the roughly 30,000 troops deployed under the "surge" last year.
The tug of war is illustrated by General Petraeus's recent requests for forces. He has asked for small numbers of troops to fill gaps left by departing forces to help manage operations as the broader drawdown continues, sources say. Those requests are giving Pentagon officials pause because many forces that could go have not had adequate time at home.
"We just can't continue to give this way," says one senior uniformed official, who, like others in this article, asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "At some point, we have to refresh and retrain those forces that are cycling through," says the official, who acknowledges the tension between Petraeus and those who provide the forces.
If defense officials decide not to provide new forces to Petraeus, the message to him will be simple: Make the most of what you've got.
"As we draw down, the expectation is that we would redistribute the forces we've got there instead of sending any new ones," says the official. "It's just good business practice."
That thinking may also drive upcoming decisions on how many more troops can be withdrawn this year. General consensus has already been reached on the five-brigade drawdown, a proposal that both recognizes improved security in Iraq as much as it does the strain on American forces. But the consensus for other decisions has yet to come together.
As Petraeus prepares for his testimony in Washington – previously slated for March but now likely to occur in April, sources say – he will weigh all his options before making a recommendation on troop numbers.
Under one scenario, security in Iraq will stay about the same as the planned troop withdrawal occurs, Petraeus explained during a news conference in Kuwait over the weekend. Under another scenario, it deteriorates as US forces return home. A third scenario, Petraeus said, is that security actually improves as Iraqi forces develop more capability.