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Petraeus plan echoes earlier hope for cuts
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Gen. David Petraeus - photo by AP illustration
WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus is not the first Iraq war commander to spell out a plan for winding down U.S. involvement there and putting the Iraqis in control.
Just over a year ago, Petraeus’ predecessor, Gen. George Casey, was forced to scrap a planned troop reduction. And that disappointment was followed by Bush’s decision to increase troop levels even further — a move deemed essential to salvaging any prospect for stabilizing Iraq and permitting a U.S. exit.
Petraeus, in congressional testimony Monday, spelled out his vision for reducing U.S. troop levels, starting this month. Without guaranteeing success, he said the recent buildup of U.S. troops has yielded enough good results that he foresees a transition to Iraqi security control, gradually and deliberately.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way,” he told a joint meeting of the House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services committees, testifying together with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Virtually from the moment U.S. forces captured Baghdad in April 2003, just days after launching the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, U.S. commanders and administration officials in Washington thought they were on track to winding down U.S. involvement and handing off to the Iraqis.
Then the insurgency intervened and the reality of a country in chaos conspired to deepen U.S. involvement.
Today’s total of 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is the highest of the entire war. And active-duty Army soldiers, who represent the bulk of the force, are serving 15-month tours, the longest of the war.
Petraeus said the strain on the military, with thousands of troops having served multiple combat tours, helped “inform” his decision to recommend to President Bush that force levels be reduced. His plan calls for the reductions to begin this month with the departure of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
It is worth noting that the 13th MEU is operating in Anbar province, the Western desert region that Bush and other American officials have been pointing to recently as an example of measurable war progress. This may indicate the way ahead: The early troop reductions likely will be made in areas of Iraq where security has improved the most, not just in Anbar but possibly also in Northern provinces.
Petraeus said he has recommended that in December an Army brigade — numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers — be withdrawn, and that between December and next July four additional Army brigades plus two Marine battalions leave Iraq without being replaced. That would return U.S. force levels to approximately the 130,000 that were in Iraq before Bush announced his troop buildup in January.
In his testimony, Petraeus noted that he could have waited until April to begin sending home the five Army brigades that constituted the bulk of Bush’s buildup. One reason he chose to start the drawdown earlier, he said, was a recognition of the enormous strain that the buildup has placed on troops and their families.
Another reason, likely, was that Petraeus wanted to give himself some flexibility in shifting forces around the battlefield to compensate for the net reduction in troops, starting this month. The more time he has to make such adjustments — between now and July 2008 — the less risk of security setbacks.
It was a bit of a surprise to many observers that Petraeus decided that he could begin the drawdown almost immediately. Also surprising was his public commitment to continuing the drawdown even after the extra forces have returned home by next summer. He said it was too early to know when to pull out additional troops, after July; he recommended that Bush wait until March to make that decision.
A chart Petraeus presented at his hearing showed a stair-step reduction in troop levels to a low point of five brigades, which would be about one-quarter the size of the present force. His chart put no date to that goal.
It is possible that by March Petraeus would find himself facing yet another escalation in violence, casting doubt on his commitment to further troop cuts. But having already told the Congress that additional cuts are merited, and with political pressure growing in Washington, it would be difficult for him to backtrack.
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