Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Sunday made no promises for a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq next year, sticking to the Pentagon’s long-held assertion that field commanders will determine when to begin a military drawdown.
Citing the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq, Rumsfeld said troop levels would remain near 160,000. Depending upon conditions, troops then would return to pre-election levels of 138,000 as planned, he said.
Debate in Congress over when to bring troops home turned bitter last week after a decorated Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and estimated a pullout could be complete within six months. Republicans called Murtha’s position one of abandonment and surrender.
Rumsfeld, appearing on Sunday news shows, suggested that talk of an early withdrawal encourages insurgents and discourages U.S. troops.
“The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder maybe all we have to do is wait and we’ll win. We can’t win militarily. They know that. The battle is here in the United States,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”
U.S. troops, the defense secretary said, believe they are making progress in a noble cause in which the U.S. will prevail. Yet, he said, the debate over leaving immediately may make them wonder “whether what they’re doing makes sense if that’s the idea.”
“We have to all have the willingness to have a free debate, but we also all have to have the willingness to understand what the effects of our words are,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Leaving Iraq too soon would allow Iraq to be turned into a haven for terrorists, Rumsfeld said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that were we to pull out precipitously, the American people would be in greater danger than they are today,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Murtha: Iraqis need an incentive
Murtha said he believes Iraqis can take over the battle against the insurgents and allow U.S. troops to move out of danger.
“We just have to give them the incentive to take it over,” Murtha said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“They’re going to let us do the fighting as long as we’re there. And, until we turn it over to them, they’re not going to be up to standards,” the congressman said.
Rumsfeld said the U.S.-led coalition continues to make progress in training Iraqi security forces, which he placed at 212,000.
Rumsfeld disputed reports that fewer than 1,000 Iraqis were capable of fighting the insurgency without coalition assistance. Calling the lower number “a red herring,” he said it does not reflect the involvement of Iraqis in securing their country.
“The Iraqi security forces are out engaged in the fight. Some are in the lead, some are working with us in tandem, others are working with us where we have the lead, and that’s perfectly understandable,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
In September, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told senators that only one Iraqi army battalion appeared capable of fighting without U.S. help.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said that bringing home the troops before determining whether Iraq has reached a political consensus would be a mistake. But he said troop levels necessarily must fall below 100,000 next year unless the entire National Guard is mobilized and troop rotations fundamentally changed.
Biden said President Bush has yet to level with Americans about the war, which he said is why public support has fallen. In a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, almost six in 10 disapproved of the way the president was handling the war in Iraq.
“We’re losing the American people, and that is a disaster,” Biden said.
Some critics of the way in which the war has been conducted have contended that more troops, not fewer, are needed. Rumsfeld, however, said that senior commanders have never been denied the level of troops they have requested.