The Pentagon’s top generals and admirals will make their own assessment for President Bush on whether to continue pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in the second half of the year — independent of what Bush’s commander in Baghdad recommends, the top U.S. military officer said Friday.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him on the last stop of a six-day trip that the Joint Chiefs will take into account a range of issues beyond the security situation in Iraq.
They will consider, for example, the effects of growing strain on troops and their families from multiple tours in Iraq, as well as the outlook for troop requirements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Mullen said.
“I’ve got to look, with the Joint Chiefs, at what we think the best way ahead is in Iraq, in the region and globally,” Mullen said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced at the Pentagon on Thursday that he had asked the Joint Chiefs for their Iraq assessment, to coincide with recommendations from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, as well as Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of American forces in the Middle East.
Gates has said he hopes Petraeus will conclude that further troop cuts in the second half of 2008 are feasible.
'There are good signs'
Earlier this week Fallon said he was encouraged by what he called signs of economic and political progress in Iraq, although he did not say whether he favored more troop cuts in the second half of 2008. He spoke in an interview in St. Petersburg, Fla., while hosting with Mullen a conference of Middle Eastern defense chiefs.
“My sense is, they are beginning to get it,” Fallon said of Iraqi political figures. “There are good signs.” He added, “I’m very pleased with where we are in Iraq,”
The Joint Chiefs intend to have their consensus view ready for Gates and the president by March or April, Mullen said.
Bush needs to hear the views from a range of senior military officers, Mullen said, on “the risks that are associated with whatever we’re going to do next” in Iraq, where about 160,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in a conflict that appears, for the moment, to be leaning in favor of the U.S. and Iraq governments.
Mullen said he and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will learn closer to March what Petraeus and Fallon intend to recommend. But he stressed that the Joint Chiefs, in advising Gates and Bush, will take a broader view of what conditions in Iraq require.
“There is an independence aspect of this,” he said, noting that he already has put together a group of people on his staff to lay the groundwork for the Joint Chiefs’ assessment. He said that work began in late November or early December, shortly after Mullen took over as chairman in early October.
Pressed for his own view on whether more troop cuts were likely after this summer, Mullen declined to give one. He stressed that Petraeus was constantly evaluating conditions on the ground in Iraq and that any number of events — positive or negative — could happen in the months ahead that would influence a troop-cut decision.
The current plan, announced last September, is to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by five brigades, or roughly 30,000 troops by July. The Petraeus, Fallon and Joint Chiefs assessments are to focus on how to proceed after July.
Mullen flies to El Salvador
Before Bush accepted Petraeus’ recommendation last September, the Joint Chiefs presented their own view. Mullen, who was then a member of the Joint Chiefs as head of the Navy, said Friday that “there were some differences” among the service chiefs last time around, “but we worked them out.”
In the current makeup of the Joint Chiefs, two of them commanded troops earlier in the Iraq war — the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey. The Air Force chief, Gen. Michael Moseley, directed the initial air war in Iraq from a post in Qatar as chief of Central Command air forces.
Mullen made his remarks in an interview with three reporters flying with him to San Salvador from Bogota, Colombia, where he had met with top Colombian defense officials to discuss their war against rebel forces.
On his El Salvador visit, Mullen was making a special point of thanking the government for its steady support in Iraq. El Salvador is now the only Latin American country with troops in Iraq. It has rotated units, ranging from 280 to 380 soldiers each, into Iraq since 2003 and is preparing to send a fresh contingent of 280 next month.
Mullen was flying by helicopter to a military base at San Juan Opica, west of the capital, to meet with the soldiers preparing to go to Iraq.