WASHINGTON – Behind the Pentagon’s closed doors, U.S. military leaders told President Bush Wednesday they are worried about the Iraq war’s mounting strain on troops and their families. But they indicated they’d go along with a brief halt in pulling out troops this summer.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff did say senior commanders in Iraq should make more frequent assessments of security conditions, an idea that appeared aimed at increasing pressure for more rapid troop reductions.
The chiefs’ concern is that U.S. forces are being worn thin, compromising the Pentagon’s ability to handle crises elsewhere in the world.
Wednesday’s 90-minute Pentagon session, held in a secure conference room known as “the Tank,” was arranged by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to provide Bush an additional set of military views as he prepares to decide how to proceed in Iraq once his troop buildup, which began in 2007, runs its course by July.
“Armed with all that, the president must now decide the way ahead in Iraq,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. The discussion covered not only Iraq but Afghanistan, where violence has spiked, and broader military matters, said Morrell, who briefed reporters without giving details of the discussion. Some specifics were provided by defense officials, commenting on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.
The Joint Chiefs are particularly concerned about Afghanistan and an increasingly active Taliban insurgency.
The United States has about 31,000 troops in Afghanistan and 156,000 in Iraq.
U.S. forces in Iraq peaked at 20 brigades last year and are to be cut to 15 brigades, with a total of about 140,000 combat and support troops, by the end of July. A key question facing Bush is whether security conditions will have improved sufficiently by then to justify more reductions.
Gates has said he would like to see the total drop to 10 brigades by the end of this year, but that now looks unlikely.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has proposed what is commonly called a “pause” to assess the impact of having withdrawn five combat brigades since December. He has argued that it would be reckless to shrink the American force so rapidly that the gains achieved over the past year are compromised or lost entirely.
Bush is expected to endorse Petraeus’ approach. If, as expected, Petraeus is given until August or September to weigh the effects of the current round of reductions, then it is unlikely that the force would get much below 15 brigades by the time Bush leaves office in January.
In their session with Bush, the chiefs laid out their concerns about the health of the U.S. force, several defense officials said.
“The conversations today with the Joint Chiefs were much broader than just Iraq,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said later. “It was a step-back look of what are the challenges we face here in the next decade.”
The president is to give a speech today in Ohio on the political and economic situation in Iraq.