Bush to maintain Iraq troop levels until 2009

/ Source: The Associated Press

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."

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.

McCain used Bush's announcement to criticize Obama as wrong on the war. The GOP candidate, also campaigning in Ohio, said the Democrat "lacks the judgment to lead this country."

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 And he said more U.S. forces could be withdrawn in the first half of 2009 if conditions improve in Iraq.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

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.

Upbeat account
The president offered a portrait of an Iraq on the rise: 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.

In his upbeat account of the war, the president shared credit all around. "The progress in Iraq is a credit to the valor of American troops and civilians, the valor of Iraqi forces and the valor of our coalition partners," he said.

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 confirmed Tuesday that it would be the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, that will go to Afghanistan early next year.

More or less?
On Iraq, senior defense officials say Bush is adopting a compromise proposal from his military team.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had argued to keep troop levels fairly level through next June — an even longer timeframe than Bush is embracing. But others, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they believed that withdrawing troops more quickly from Iraq 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. But several recent events may have changed the calculus.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the emerging plan also reflects the concern of U.S. commanders that rushing U.S. force reductions could lead to instability at a pivotal time of Iraqi political progress and preparedness of Iraqi forces.

"This plan does, however, mean continuing stress on both the active and reserve forces," Cordesman added.

Among the more important changes was the unanticipated decision by Georgia to bring home its contingent of about 2,000 soldiers after Russia invaded the former Soviet republic in early August.

"Either way, people would question: Should he send more? Should he send less?" White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "He thinks that he hit it just right."