WASHINGTON – Trumpeting progress in Iraq, President Bush said for the first time Thursday that security improvements now have a “degree of durability” – an assertion that appeared to lay the groundwork for an announcement in coming weeks of further U.S. troop reductions.
Echoing the president’s assessment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said later at a Pentagon news conference that security in Iraq has “improved dramatically” and that he sees “a real possibility” that conditions there will permit more troop cuts, although he did not say how soon or how many.
The administration is awaiting a recommendation from its soon-to-depart commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on future troop levels. Petraeus is expected to submit that report before the end of August, and in mid-September he will leave Baghdad to become commander of U.S. Central Command, a position of broader responsibility that includes the increasingly worrisome war in Afghanistan.
Management of the two wars is becoming more closely intertwined in the sense that the Pentagon’s ability to send more troops to Afghanistan – as requested by U.S. commanders there – is severely constrained by the large number of forces still in Iraq – about 145,000 as of Thursday.
“We’d like to get additional troops there as soon as we could,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, appearing alongside Gates. Mullen was referring to commanders’ stated request for three additional brigades in Afghanistan, including one to conduct training of Afghan forces.
Gates said “there are some alternatives” to waiting for Petraeus’ recommendation on troop levels in Iraq before sending more troops to Afghanistan, but he was not specific. At another point, he said the Pentagon is “looking at” sending a relatively small number of support forces, such as ordnance disposal teams and civil affairs soldiers – “a couple of hundred at most” – to Afghanistan soon.
With the Iraq war in its sixth year and violence substantially decreased in recent months, Bush gave a brief and hastily arranged update at the White House. He noted that violence is at its lowest since the spring of 2004 and said Iraqi forces increasingly are capable of securing the country.
“The progress is still reversible,” Bush said, but added, “There now appears to be a degree of durability in gains.”