WASHINGTON – Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, nominated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated Tuesday that the “surge” of troops ordered into Iraq last winter by President Bush will come to a halt in April, regardless of progress in the war, because there are no fresh troops to replace them.
Mullen, who has led the Navy for the past two years, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the surge was intended to be temporary. “I believe prudence dictates that we plan for an eventual drawdown,” he told the committee, which seemed likely to approve his nomination this week.
Mullen’s assessment, which seemed at odds with the rationale for the Iraq war laid out by Bush, reflects the growing concern of many commanders about the toll the war is exacting on the military and the impatience with the lack of political progress in Iraq.
Perhaps signaling his intention to be an independent voice as the president’s chief military adviser, Mullen was critical of the administration’s failure to use its full economic and political power in Iraq, and its failure to “establish an early and significant dialogue” with other countries in the region to help ease Iraq’s problems.
Still, at least on the military side, Mullen said there has been some progress. “Security is better – not great, but better,” he said.
But he acknowledged “there does not seem to be much political progress” by the Iraqi government. And without political progress, he said, “no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference.”
Bush, who nominated Mullen to replace Marine Gen. Peter Pace, often has said U.S. strategy in the war and troop strength there will depend on “conditions on the ground.”
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is due to report by Sept. 15 on the effects of the “surge,” which poured 28,500 additional troops into Iraq between February and June, bringing the total to almost 160,000.
While Petraeus is expected to say that some military progress has been achieved, a parallel assessment by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker is likely to report that the Iraqi government has made little or no progress toward the political reconciliation or economic development that the surge was intended to enable.
In order to sustain the current force in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reluctantly has approved extending combat tours to 15 months for active-duty troops, an increase from the 12 months that had been routine. Gates and other defense officials have acknowledged that such measures must be temporary because of the strain they impose on soldiers and their families. Even with 15-month tours, most troops are barely home a year before being deployed again, and many are already on their third deployment.
“I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking on them,” Mullen said.
For that reason, he said, when the current force begins to rotate home in April, they will be replaced “just with rotational units” and not with replacements for the soldiers who made up the surge. That means troop levels will drop to about 131,000.