President George Bush said on Thursday night that while about 6,000 troops will be home by Christmas, the need to make progress in Iraq will see current troop levels remain very high into next summer. While Bush argued that the security situation is improving there, other reports suggest only limited progress. The president's plan to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future has created controversy among senior military officers, who worry about the strain placed on the armed forces.
In his speech, published on the White House website, the President said that one could make a strong case that gains are being made in Iraq.
In Iraq, an ally of the United States is fighting for its survival. Terrorists and extremists who are at war with us around the world are seeking to topple Iraq's government, dominate the region, and attack us here at home. If Iraq's young democracy can turn back these enemies, it will mean a more hopeful Middle East and a more secure America. This ally has placed its trust in the United States. And tonight, our moral and strategic imperatives are one: We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours.
This week, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified before Congress about how that strategy is progressing. In their testimony, these men made clear that our challenge in Iraq is formidable. Yet they concluded that conditions in Iraq are improving, that we are seizing the initiative from the enemy, and that the troop surge is working.
Bush argued in his address to the nation that security is improving in Iraq, reports the Associated Press.
Bush said 5,700 US forces would be home by Christmas instead of leaving Iraq beginning in the spring as originally planned. Four more combat brigades would pull out of Iraq as currently scheduled by July.
These troops comprise the troop buildup that Bush ordered in January that boosted US troop strength to 168,000, the highest level of the war. Under the withdrawal plan, troop levels would drop back to around 130,000 by next summer, close to where they were before the buildup.
Bush said the US engagement will stretch beyond his presidency. But he hinted further reductions were possible before he leaves office, saying the top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and US ambassador Ryan Crocker will report again in March.
"The troop surge is working," Bush said. "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home."
However, Bush made it clear that, in his view, troops should remain in Iraq for years to come, even as his aides finished a report that Iraq is making limited progress at best, reports The Washington Post.
The president's upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq during a nationally televised address last night was clouded by the killing earlier in the day of a Sunni sheik who led the turnaround of a key province in alliance with US forces. While Bush stressed the positive, his staff finished work on a report it will send to Congress today concluding that Iraq is making "satisfactory" progress on nine of 18 political and security benchmarks, just one more than in July, administration sources said.
He coined a new slogan to describe his latest strategy, "Return on Success," meaning further progress will enable further withdrawal. "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home," he said. "And in all we do, I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy."
At the same time, Bush warned that substantial numbers of US troops will be in Iraq for years to come. Iraqi leaders "understand that their success will require US political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency," he said, although he said such a scenario "requires many fewer American troops."
The Democrats moved quickly to assail Bush's speech. Senator Jack Reed (D - Rhode Island) delivered a rebuttal accusing the president of not providing "convincing rationale" for the war in Iraq, reports the Associated Press.
Tonight, a nation eager for change in Iraq heard the president speak about his plans for the future. But, once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it.
As a former Army officer, I know the great sacrifices our soldiers and their families make. Our military can defeat any foe on the battlefield.
Yet, as General Petraeus has repeatedly stated, Iraq's fundamental problems are not military, they are political. The only way to create a lasting peace in Iraq is for Iraqi leaders to negotiate a settlement of their long-standing differences.
When the president launched the surge in January, he told us that its purpose was to provide Iraqi leaders with the time to make that political progress.
But now, nine months into the surge, the president's own advisers tell us that Iraq's leaders have not, and are not likely to do so. Meanwhile, thousands of brave Americans remain in the crossfire of another country's civil war.
The New York Times reports that Bush's desire to keep large numbers of US forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future is deeply unpopular among some serving and retired officers. They worry about the strain being put on America's military and the ability of Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander in Iraq, to be candid in his assessments of the situation there.
"This approach can work for brief periods in many places, but it's not a good long-term solution," said Douglas A. Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and a critic of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq. He called General Petraeus's testimony "another deceitful attempt on the part of the generals and their political masters to extend our stay in the country long enough until Bush leaves office."
Even before General Petraeus appeared before Congress this week, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, last week questioned the significance of what his colleague had achieved.
General Casey, who was General Petraeus's predecessor as the top commander in Iraq, said that while the decision to send additional forces had produced a "tactical effect" and brought "a temporary and local impact on the security situation," the "$64,000 question" was "whether the opportunities created by the military could be taken advantage of by the Iraqi political leadership."
"I think a smaller force will cause Iraqis to do more faster," General Casey added, speaking at a breakfast sponsored by Government Executive magazine.
On his blog at The Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan, a political commentator who originally supported the war and has since turned against it, argued that the president's comments were not persuasive.
The case was so weak, the argument so thin, the evidence for optimism so obviously strained that one wondered whom he thought he was persuading. And the way he framed his case was still divorced from the reality we see in front of our nose: that Iraq is not, as he still seems to believe, full of ordinary people longing for democracy and somehow stymied solely by "extremists" or al Qaeda or Iran, but a country full of groups of people who cannot trust one another, who are still living in the wake of unimaginable totalitarian trauma, who have murdered and tortured and butchered each other in pursuit of religious and ethnic pride and honor for centuries.
Patrick Lang, a retired special forces Colonel and former senior analyst on the Middle East for the Defense Intelligence Agency, however, argues at his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis, that there is merit in keeping a large troop presence in Iraq now.
Some blognik remarked today that it was "interesting" that I have listened to Petraeus sympathetically. He found that curious because, in his words, "Lang has been a staunch opponent of this war." It is true that I thought and think that the Iraq war was "sold" to the American people in a propaganda driven systematic campaign of lies and exaggeration by the Bush Administration…
Nevertheless, we are stuck on the flypaper of Iraq. In my opinion a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, abandoning the protean mess that is the Iraqi government would result in such a disastrous situation that we can not afford to do that.