Plan Would Shift Forces From Iraq to Afghanistan
The number of American combat brigades in Iraq would shrink to 14 in February from 15, according to the recommendation. All told, the number of American forces in Iraq, currently about 146,000, would drop by nearly 8,000 by March.
The reduction is smaller than some officials had earlier suggested might be possible before President Bush leaves office in January, given the significant decline in violence in Iraq. But it reflects the caution of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is leaving his post as the senior American commander in Iraq this month, about the still-unsettled situation in Iraq.
The recommendation on the troop shift was presented to Mr. Bush on Wednesday in a video conference by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. American officials said the recommendation was the product of extensive consultations between the Pentagon officials and General Petraeus.
Under the proposal, an Army brigade and a Marine battalion would be sent to Afghanistan by early next year, adding about 4,500 troops to American forces there. They would represent a partial but still significant move toward meeting repeated requests from American commanders in Afghanistan for three more brigades, a reinforcement that the commanders say is necessary to carry out the mission there and to combat a resurgent Taliban.
The recommendation indicates that the next president will inherit a force in Iraq that has slightly more troops than in January 2007, when President Bush announced his troop reinforcement plan. Some administration officials voiced hope in July that the additional troop withdrawals by the end of Mr. Bush’s term could amount to as many as three brigades.
As the consultations over troop cuts began, General Petraeus took a very cautious approach about further reductions in Iraq, recommending that 15 brigades be maintained in Iraq through next June, administration officials said. But Mr. Gates endorsed a recommendation by Admiral Mullen that the number of brigades be reduced to 14 early next year. Other administration officials argued that such a reduction was necessary to demonstrate to the American public that there was a return from the security gains made during the so-called surge and to keep the pressure on Iraqi officials to make political progress.
The recommendation reflected a common approach that was arrived at following extensive discussions between the Pentagon and General Petraeus, the officials said. Mr. Bush is expected to approve the recommendation, though officials said that adjustments might be made as events in Iraq unfold.
The cautious approach taken by General Petraeus and his successor, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, reflects concern about a variety of uncertainties ahead in Iraq following the departure this summer of the last of the five brigades deployed as part of Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan. Those concerns include what might happen if provincial elections are held as expected late this year or early next year; the fate of tens of thousands of Sunni volunteers who as Awakening Councils have volunteered for neighborhood watch groups; tensions between Kurds and Arabs over Kirkuk; and the possibility that Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents might step up their attacks.
Another concern of American commanders is the reduction in allied troops. Two thousand Georgian troops left unexpectedly during the recent clash between Russia and Georgia, and 800 Polish troops are scheduled to leave by October. There are still some 4,000 British troops near the southern city of Basra, but American officials are uncertain how active a role they will play and how long they might be in Iraq. That has added to the responsibilities of American forces south of Baghdad.
If provincial elections are held in December, as the Bush administration hopes, the United States and its coalition partners would have tens of thousands fewer troops than they did during the 2005 elections in Iraq. On the other hand, the number of Iraqi soldiers and police officers has more than doubled since the end of 2005.
The recommendations signaled that American commanders weighing troop levels in Iraq are focusing more closely on political milestones like elections and security developments than on the calendar. That approach could have bearing on the continuing political debate over the wisdom of setting strict timetables for troop withdrawals, an issue in the American election campaigns. Iraq and the United States have been negotiating an agreement that calls for the departure of American combat forces by the end of 2011 depending on security conditions — or as a draft of the accord puts it, subject to the review of a joint American and Iraqi commission.
According to the recommendation, the reductions in American forces in Iraq would be made as follows: a Marine battalion that is scheduled to leave Anbar Province this fall would not be replaced. (A Marine battalion that had been earmarked to replace it would be sent to Afghanistan instead.)
In addition, the United States would withdraw several aviation units and some military police companies from Iraq, among other units. In the early weeks of 2009, the United States would redirect to Afghanistan an Army combat brigade that had been preparing to go to Iraq, which would have the effect of reducing the number of American brigades in Iraq by February.
“All of these moves are not set in stone,” said a senior Defense Department official who asked not to be named because he was discussing confidential deliberations. “There will be a continuous assessment of the conditions on the ground, and we will have the flexibility to adjust as required.”
The proposed increases in American troop levels for Afghanistan go part of the way toward satisfying the requests from American commanders there. There are about 15,000 American troops in Afghanistan assigned to the NATO-led stabilization mission, which has 45,000 troops in all. Another 19,000 American troops are in Afghanistan carrying out combat, training, counterterrorism and detainee operations.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen had provided their recommendation to Mr. Bush and had also shared the views of General Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the acting head of the Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and which General Petraeus will soon head.
“Without getting into what specifically they advised the president, I can tell you that all these leaders are fundamentally in agreement on how we should proceed in Iraq,” Mr. Morrell said.
He said that the recommendation followed “serious and lengthy discussions” about the security gains and threats in Iraq. “Based on all that they collectively decided on what they believed to be the best approach going forward, of course now it is up to the commander in chief to decide the way ahead.”
(source : The New York Times)
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