September 9, 2008
Bush to Keep Troop Levels in Iraq Steady
By Ben Feller Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- President Bush will keep roughly the same number of U.S. forces in Iraq through the end of the year and pull about 8,000 troops home by February, a drawdown that's both slower and smaller than long anticipated.
By the time the troops return home on the timeline Bush is proposing, someone else will be making the wartime decisions from the Oval Office.
The measured reductions in troops reflect the military's attempt to protect security gains in Iraq, while also freeing up some added forces in Afghanistan.
The move also shows that Bush still commands when and how troops will withdraw, despite a fiercely opposition Congress and a soured American public.
Bush's decisions amount to perhaps his last major troop strategy in a war that has come to define his presidency.
In all, about 8,000 U.S. forces will be coming back, the president 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 in February. Accompanying that combat drawdown will be the withdrawal of about 3,400 support forces over next several months.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becomingly increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery to the National Defense University in Washington.
There are about 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Senior defense officials says 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.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the emerging plan reflects the concern of U.S. commanders: 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.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has advocated pulling all U.S. combat forces out of Iraqi within16 months of taking office. GOP nominee John McCain has said he would rely on the advice of U.S. military commanders to determine the timing and pace of troop reductions.
Both candidates have said more troops are needed in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence.
Bush argued that Iraq is in a better place now by almost any measure. He said violence is at its lowest point since the spring of 2004, "normal life is returning to communities across the country," and political reconciliation is moving forward.
But all this emphasis on progress and improvement belied the fact that his announcement is likely to be a disappointment to many who wanted -- and even expected -- bigger drawdowns sooner.
Nowhere did Bush acknowledge this, instead highlighting his announcement as one of "additional force reductions."
The Iraq war has drained the country's spirit during Bush's second term. He has turned away congressional attempts to end the war faster.
More than half of Bush's address is devoted to Afghanistan. He outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of additional American forces there, bringing the U.S. presence to nearly 31,000, compared with about 146,000 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.
The president acknowledged that the challenges in Afghanistan remain huge.
"Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile," Bush said. "And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world."
Bush did not specifically mention, nor apologize for, a controversial U.S. raid in western Afghanistan. But he said he has ensured Afghan President Hamid Karzai that "America will work closely with the Afghan government to ensure the security of the Afghan people while protecting innocent life."
An Afghan government commission and a U.N. report both say some 90 civilians -- including 60 children and 15 women -- were killed in the U.S.-led raid last month. The U.S. said Sunday it would reopen its own investigation because of emerging new evidence.
The president also did not specifically mention Washington's more aggressive moves of late in Pakistan -- portraying the U.S. intentions as only to "help the government of Pakistan defeat Taliban and al-Qaida fighters hiding in remote border regions."
U.S. officials are pressing Pakistan to crack down on places from which insurgents stage attacks on American and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. But they appear to be losing patience.
A highly unusual U.S.-led ground assault last week in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan was said to have killed about 15 people and prompted loud protests from Islamabad -- even threats of a military response to any repeat -- but no public regrets from Washington.
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