WASHINGTON – Since last spring, President Bush has publicly staked the future of his strategy in Iraq on a series of briefings that an Army general will deliver to Congress today and Tuesday – the long-awaited report by Gen. David H. Petraeus on the state of the war.
“Why don’t you wait and see what (Petraeus) says?” Bush pleaded with Congress in May. “Fund the troops, and let him come back and report to the American people.”
Bush’s reasoning, aides said, was simple: An assessment of the war from Petraeus, a widely admired officer, was likely to enjoy more credibility with Congress and the public than anything the president could say. Aides knew, as well, that Petraeus was likely to support Bush’s strategy in Iraq – because the general himself was one of the architects of the year-long “surge” of additional troops to try to stabilize Baghdad and other areas.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the briefing room. Petraeus’ report may not have as much impact as the White House hoped because his message has been widely anticipated – and even previewed by Petraeus himself.
“The surge will run its course,” Petraeus told ABC News last week, forecasting a gradual drawdown of some of the estimated 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. “There are limits to what our military can provide, so my recommendations have to be informed … by the strain we have put on our military services.”
Officials have said they expect Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to make three major points: The surge is beginning to succeed, but it is too soon to withdraw significant numbers of troops; the central government in Baghdad has failed to meet the administration’s political goals, but there are signs of progress at the local level; and, finally, the consequences of a hasty withdrawal would be catastrophic.
Administration officials expect Petraeus to report that the initial phase of the surge has improved security in Baghdad, in Anbar province to the west, and Diyala province to the northeast. He is likely to announce that U.S. forces can reduce their presence in Anbar and Diyala, but not yet in Baghdad.
Petraeus does not intend to deliver a specific recommendation to Congress on how soon and how far to reduce troop levels; That will be up to Bush, who is expected to announce a decision this week. Officials have said that Petraeus and his aides have been considering the possibility of a nominal drawdown of a few thousand troops around the end of the year but that the general does not want to reduce his force by significant numbers until absolutely necessary.
Petraeus “wants to keep as much force on the ground as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can,” said an administration official not authorized to speak on the record, who asked not to be identified.
Instead of withdrawing troops, Petraeus has recommended relocating troops from Anbar and Diyala to Baghdad or another hotspot. Or they could be sent to Kuwait to create a reserve U.S. force.
A military official stationed in Baghdad said that while the forces will be rearranged, he does not expect a drawdown until the surge forces begin to leave in March or April of 2008.
“Why take a chance of losing the gains we have made?” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
In his remarks to Congress, Petraeus is expected to emphasize the problems large troop withdrawals would create.
A hasty withdrawal could produce “a failed state in the middle of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia, where you’d have huge problems getting oil to the world market, where you’d potentially have a humanitarian disaster,” Army Col. Michael J. Meese, an adviser to Petraeus, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.
“Do not think if we pull out that it will not be horrible. If you don’t like Darfur, you won’t like Baghdad,” one officer said.
Administration officials expect Petraeus to recommend, in either his public or private remarks, that U.S. forces can be removed from the areas where the Iraqi force has the strong leadership or longstanding partnerships with U.S. leaders that allow it to undertake operations independently.
“We have already made some decisions out there in areas where success has occurred,” said a senior military official.
But military officers close to Petraeus believe he will avoid making precise predictions of when the Iraqi army will be able to take over, arguing that such predictions in the past have always failed to materialize and have eroded the credibility of U.S. commanders in Iraq.
Administration officials have pointed to reductions in attacks and killings, but congressional critics regard the figures as unreliable. Petraeus is expected to point to statistics as indications of improvements, but will be careful not to overstate their importance, Meese said.
On the political front, Petraeus is expected to talk about the success U.S. forces have met in working with former anti-American insurgents in the Sunni communities of Anbar province. Officials say the administration hopes to try the same strategy in other parts of Iraq, including those now dominated by Shiite Muslim militias.
But officials also acknowledge that political progress has been piecemeal and slow. Petraeus and Crocker are expected to de-emphasize the likelihood of a national reconciliation and instead talk about the importance of smaller steps of local “accommodation” first, one official said.
Recommendations by Petraeus and Crocker follow a series of reports that have given bleak assessments of the situation in Iraq but offered no quick solutions.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded think tank, issued a report recommending U.S. troops in Iraq be cut by half in three years and removed within five years. The report was based on recommendations by many experts who advised the Iraq Study Group, a White House-backed commission that recommended a change in strategy last December.
Administration officials acknowledged the military is divided about the way forward, and not all senior military advisers agree with Petraeus.
A senior official said he expected that the disagreement among military officials could become public after Petraeus’ appearance, or perhaps following expected comments from Bush later this week.
“I suspect that some of the dissenting voices will talk about the fact that they might not be totally in agreement with General Petraeus,” said the official. “There will be some folks who will say, ‘I would do things differently if I were in charge of Iraq.’ But they are not in charge.”