More U.S. forces are serving in Afghanistan than in Iraq, the Pentagon said Monday, a first since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and a reflection of the new primacy of the nine-year Afghan war.
Using figures collected Saturday, the Pentagon says 94,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan and 92,000 in Iraq. The numbers are expected to rise in Afghanistan and fall in Iraq as the Obama administration shifts focus to what it has called the more important conflict.
President Barack Obama celebrated what he called the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq during a commencement address Saturday to U.S. Military Academy cadets. At the same time, he predicted tough fighting in Afghanistan.
Obama had campaigned on a quick end to the Iraq war, which he opposed, and an expansion of the conflict in Afghanistan, which he said mattered more.
"As we end the war in Iraq ... we are pressing forward in Afghanistan," Obama said Saturday.
"There will be difficult days ahead. We will adapt, we will persist, and I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan."
U.S. forces in Afghanistan will reach roughly 98,000 later this year — a record — on Obama's orders.
At the height of the Iraq war in 2006 and 2007, the United States had between 130,000 and 172,000 forces fighting there.
For more than a year U.S. forces have rarely engaged in combat in Iraq, but troop levels have remained high in part as a hedge against violence surrounding Iraqi elections.
All U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Iraq by September and the United States and Iraq have agreed that no U.S. forces will remain in the country by 2012.
The White House says the plans to deploy 98,000 troops in Afghanistan do not represent an absolute ceiling, but few expect Obama to approve any large escalation beyond that number. He has pledged to begin bringing U.S. forces home from Afghanistan in July 2011.