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With Gates's shift on drawdowns, little reprieve ahead for U.S. Army in Iraq

In agreeing to stop the post-'surge' drawdown in Iraq, Defense secretary keeps pressure on the service.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Face to face: Defense Secretary Robert Gates (c.) discussed Iraqi securityissues Monday in Baghdad with his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus (l.), and Iraq's national security adviser, Dr. Mowaffaq Rubai’e (r.).

Department of Defense/AP



Defense Secretary Robert Gates's decision this week to hold off on removing more troops from Iraq after this summer means the Army probably won't get the reprieve many in the service had hoped for.

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For months, Secretary Gates had advocated bringing home as many US forces as possible, raising the possibility that the drawdown could continue past July. But he reversed course Monday after a meeting with his top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, announcing that he now favored a "pause" in the drawdown to ensure that recent security gains continue.

Although Gates left open the possibility of further troop reductions later in the year, it is now more likely that as many as 135,000 troops – the level that existed before last year's "surge" – will stay in Iraq into early 2009, when a new administration moves into the White House. Gates's shift also reignites debate over how much longer the Army can endure that level of commitment of its forces.

"It means that we're just kicking the can down the road again and hoping for the best," says Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington who served in the Pentagon in the 1980s.

Repeated and lengthy deployments, broken equipment, and declining public support for the military's presence in Iraq have contributed to problems with recruiting and retention, among other things – an institutional slide many fear will be hard to reverse.

Others, though, say Gates's decision to wait on drawing down troops after July will have little effect in the short term on the Army's ability get back on track.

"In that context, which is a strategic danger to the United States, one can't say that 15 brigades versus 12 brigades is the key," says Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general.

Still, Gates's support for a pause in the drawdown won't help the Army to address those key problems anytime soon, because it must continue rotating forces into Iraq and Afghanistan in the near term. Gen. George Casey, the top Army officer, has said the Army is "out of balance" and cannot continue to deploy at current rates. At some point, he often says, the service crosses an "invisible red line" at which point it could take a decade or more to repair the institutional damage.

"The Army is in trouble, period," says Mr. McCaffrey, who frequently raises the specter of a broken Army. "The continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the serious under-resourcing of that Army for seven years are the source of the problem."