Bush holding steady in Iraq

September 9, 2008 11:10:24 AM PDT
President Bush announced Tuesday that he will keep the U.S. force strength in Iraq largely intact until the next president takes over, drawing rebukes from Democrats who want the war ended and a bigger boost of troops in troubled Afghanistan. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who has advocated pulling all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, said Bush's plan to bring 8,000 combat and support troops home by February "comes up short."

"It is not enough troops, and not enough resources, with not enough urgency," Obama told reporters while campaigning in Riverside, Ohio.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is "stunned that President Bush has decided to bring so few troops home from Iraq and send so few resources to Afghanistan."

The House Armed Services chairman called Bush's decision a deferral until the next administration. "More significant troop reductions in Iraq are needed," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.

GOP nominee John McCain has also said more troops are needed in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence. But he has said he would rely on the advice of U.S. military commanders to determine the timing and pace of troop reductions in Iraq, The president's drawdown is not as strong or swift as long anticipated by many. No more Army combat brigades will withdraw in 2008, the final year of a Bush presidency that has come to be dominated by the war.

Bush's announcement, in a speech at the National Defense University, is perhaps his last major move on troop strategy in Iraq. Though most U.S. forces are staying, Bush chose to emphasize that he was moving forward with "additional force reductions."

And he said more U.S. forces could be withdrawn in the first half of 2009 if conditions improve in Iraq.

But by then, he'll be out of office. His successor will be making the wartime decisions.

"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said.

He showed again that he determines when and how U.S. troops return from war, despite a fiercely opposition-controlled Congress and a soured American public.

One Marine battalion, numbering about 1,000 troops, will go home on schedule in November and not be replaced. An Army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will leave by February. Accompanying that combat drawdown will be the gradual withdrawal of a total of about 3,400 support forces over next several months.

Mostly because of the departure schedule for support troops, about half of the 8,000 total will be home by the end of 2008, including a Marine fighter jet unit, military police, medical personnel, and an aviation unit in addition to the Marine battalion. The 8,000-troop drawdown represents just 5 percent of the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now.

The president offered a portrait of an Iraq on the rise by almost any measure: declining violence, improving governance, returning normalcy of life.

His military commanders say the security improvements in the country are becoming more durable, yet still fragile. That helps explain the cautious approach of keeping most U.S. forces on site, without resuming the monthly withdrawal of Army combat brigades of earlier this year.

More than half of Bush's address was devoted to Afghanistan. Bush outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of additional American forces there, bringing the U.S. presence to nearly 31,000, about a fifth the total in Iraq.

"For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more," the president said.

He announced that a Marine battalion that had been scheduled to go to Iraq in November would go to Afghanistan instead, and that that would be followed by one Army combat brigade. A defense official said Tuesday that it would be the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

The troop increase in Afghanistan will be very small. Two Marine units are leaving in November, to be replaced by the Marine battalion Bush mentioned in his speech - meaning the number of combat troops in Afghanistan would actually fall this year. The arrival of the Army brigade in January will mean a net increase of combat troops, but of only 1,000 to 1,200 troops, plus however many support troops are sent along with it.

On Iraq, senior defense officials say the Bush plan is a compromise from his military team.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had argued to keep troop numbers fairly level through next June. But others, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they believed that withdrawing troops more quickly represented a small risk compared to the gain that could be made by shifting more to Afghanistan.

It had been widely expected that Petraeus would recommend a faster pullback in Iraq perhaps calling for a reduction in the number of combat brigades from 15 to 14 this fall.


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