This round, Pentagon may keep General Petraeus offstage

As his next report on troop levels nears, senior officers aren't sure they'll agree.

Susan Walsh/AP
Shifting focus: Gen. David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill on May 22 before the Senate Armed Services committee.
Rahmat Gul/AP
A US soldier at a US base near Kabul fired artillery last week. Senior Pentagon officials want more troops in Afghanistan.

Days before the top US commander in Iraq gives his official assessment on troop levels there, a high-level move is afoot to keep Gen. David Petraeus out of the political spotlight. Many senior Pentagon officials want to shift public and lawmaker attention away from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Widely credited with improving security in Iraq, General Petraeus will soon recommend reducing troops there from perhaps a handful of support troops to as many as two combat brigades.

Members of Congress have requested that Petraeus make another appearance on Capitol Hill, sure to draw the kind of attention that a visit from the high-profile general engenders. The Defense Department has refused that request, ostensibly because of scheduling issues. But as the Pentagon struggles to muster more troops for Afghanistan, officials worry that the general's testimony on Iraq will upstage other needs.

Petraeus is expected to be cautious on troop drawdown, not wanting to lose a hard-won security despite pressure from some colleagues to free up forces for Afghanistan.

Officials also want to prevent any testimony he would provide from becoming political fodder as both sides would grope to use his testimony to their advantage.

"The Hill respects him and they also expect to use him," says one retired senior officer who did not want to comment publicly on the sensitive matter.

Differing views on Iraq

Last week, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, made a public plea for some of his 25,000 marines in Anbar Province in Iraq, to be redeployed home so the service can send more Marines to Afghanistan as soon as early next year.

Once the core of the Sunni insurgency, Anbar has been quiet for more than a year. But there has been resistance within the American command in Baghdad to redeploy those marines in any significant number.

General Conway was as blunt as he was politic in his public statement, essentially taking Petraeus to task for his caution in redeploying troops out of Iraq.

"He's the first four-star who has openly challenged Dave Petraeus's view of Iraq," says one official close to the debate on troop levels within the government.

Earlier, under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, some in uniform griped that they didn't have enough power to successfully run the war. Under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, generals have been given more authority.

As commander in Iraq, Petraeus was essentially given carte blanche to run the war there. Now, despite his recent success, some senior officials want to dial back the impact his recommendations can have.

With greater stability in Iraq and louder calls for more forces in Afghanistan, there is a growing feeling that Iraq must be seen as part of a larger puzzle of challenges.

There are currently 15 combat brigades in Iraq after the final "surge brigade" left in July, and a total of about 146,000 soldiers serving there right now.

Violence has plummeted since last year, although August saw a slight uptick in the number of American combat fatalities from a historical low in July.

Petraeus' assessment will include not only the level of violence but also the strength of Al Qaeda and other militia groups, political progress within the government of Iraq, and the growth of Iraq security forces, defense officials say.

"Factors outside Iraq – such as the strain on the force and the situation in Afghanistan – are also considered. However, they inform but do not drive the recommendations of MNF-I [Multi-national Forces Iraq]," says a senior military officer close to the process.

More troops for Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Petraeus's thinking on Afghanistan may begin to change soon. Next month, he is slated to take over as the head of US Central Command, Tampa, Fla., which oversees war operations for both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Petraeus is said to be still "developing" his views on the broader view of war operations he will assume in his new job.

"[T]hey say where you stand depends on where you sit, and so I'll be interested to have that conversation with him later on when he's responsible for both places," said Conway last week.

There is still much debate about what the broader strategy in Afghanistan should be and to what degree the new American strategy there should be made up of non-military entities.

Either way, it seems likely more troops will be sent there. Secretary Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support sending at least three brigades to Afghanistan, pending Petraeus's view on how many more forces can be drawn from Iraq.

Politics and the military

But there is another reason to keep Petraeus out of the political limelight. With intense pressure to use the military as pawns that suit one or another political view, top military officers have for the last year railed against suggestions that the military play any political role during an intense election year in which the war in Iraq still figures prominently.

Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the senior uniformed officer at the Pentagon, has long criticisized the politicization of the military.

"We are an apolitical, neutral organization in this country, and we need to stay out of politics, those of us in uniform," Mullen told reporters last week at the Pentagon.

"And it is very tempting in this time because of where we are, and we just shouldn't do it."

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