Under the timetable embraced Monday by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the number of American combat brigades would decline by one-fourth by next summer, to 15 in July from 20 now, with the prospect of deeper, if as yet unscheduled, reductions to come.
But such a move would raise the question of how the United States can avert an increase in violence in Iraq while carrying out a gradual drawdown. One approach embraced by many lawmakers would be to modify the American mission to emphasize the training and advising of Iraqi security forces so that Iraqis would be pushed into the lead and a vast majority of American combat troops could be quickly withdrawn.
This proposal, which was offered last year by the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel led by Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, has appealed to many Democrats and some Republicans who want to achieve a measure of stability in Iraq while shrinking the role of the American military.
But in his testimony on Monday, General Petraeus offered a very different vision. He proposed an American presence that would not only be longer and larger than many Democrats have advocated but would also provide for a greater American combat role in protecting the Iraqi population.
Redefining the American mission to focus primarily on training Iraqi forces and conducting commando raids against terrorists, General Petraeus said, would be premature. “We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi security forces before their capability and local conditions warrant,” he added.
The American commander was not only rebuffing the demand for a firm timeline for withdrawing the bulk of American forces, but also putting critics on notice that even when reductions come he has a different vision of the manner in which many of the remaining troops would be used.
General Petraeus is not the only one offering such cautions. The National Intelligence Estimate issued last month made a similar point — and General Petraeus quoted from it in his testimony. “We assess that changing the mission of coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent A.Q.I. from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far,” the estimate noted. A.Q.I. is the abbreviation the intelligence agencies use to refer to Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, a predominantly Iraqi organization with foreign leadership.
In his testimony, General Petraeus presented charts on suicide-bombing trends, sectarian killings, civilian deaths, roadside bombings and arms caches found. Though acknowledging that the road ahead would be difficult, he asserted that the United States so far had largely achieved its military goals to tamp down sectarian violence.
Yet a careful look at the charts illustrated the challenges faced by the military. The color-coded chart on attack trends showed a correlation between the decline of weekly attacks and the “surge” of offensive operations enabled by the deployment of five additional combat brigades and assorted other units.
The chart on Iraqi security force capabilities, however, showed relatively little change over the last year in the number of Iraqi Army, National Police and Special Operating Force battalions that are fighting side by side with the Americans. Approximately the same number are taking the lead in security operations or are “fully independent.”
General Petraeus said the Americans’ effort to work with Sunni tribes, including former insurgents, had produced thousands of allies. That number, he noted, included some 20,000 Iraqis who are being hired by the police. The alliance with the Sunni groups has contributed significantly to the reduction of violence in Anbar Province and, to a lesser extent, in Diyala Province and other parts of Iraq.
Still, the Bush administration’s earlier decision not to extend United States Army combat tours beyond 15 months has meant that the elevated American force levels in Iraq are bound to decrease. And General Petraeus formalized the widely anticipated reduction by announcing that American forces would be at the “pre-surge” level of 15 combat brigades by mid-July 2008.
General Petraeus declined to say what additional cuts would be carried out after that point, saying he would revisit the issue in March. Still, he indicated that he was committed to additional cuts. So how does the commander hope to provide better security with fewer troops?
In a somewhat sketchy discussion, General Petraeus outlined a “possible approach” to address that problem in the years ahead and presented a chart with the ungainly title “Recommended Force Reductions/Mission Shift.”
The general’s long-term projection foresaw a diminishing, but still significant, number of American brigades that would continue to assume the primary role in combat operations. By mid-July 2008, when General Petraeus anticipates a force of 15 combat brigades, a little over a third of them would be taking the lead in military operations.
A somewhat larger number would be partnered with Iraqi security forces, that is, deployed with Iraqi troops while encouraging them to take the lead.
The remainder would be involved in “overwatch,” meaning that they would be supporting Iraqi forces and available to come to their assistance but not involved in day-to-day operations to protect the Iraqi public.
At a further and undefined point in the future, the American force would shrink to about seven and later five brigades — all involved in overwatch missions.
General Petraeus acknowledged that some military officers in Washington favored faster change in the American mission, but he said that his approach reflected his best judgment on how to cope with the violence in Iraq.
General Petraeus promised a more detailed discussion of the “post-surge” phase in March. But one point was made abundantly clear: if he has his way, in the next phase the United States will not rely largely on a program to advise and train the Iraqi Army while removing its own forces from the battlefield.