WASHINGTON – President Bush will announce today that the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq will remain steady until after he leaves office, deferring any further decisions about troop withdrawals to his successor, according to a copy of his speech released by the White House.
At the same time, Bush will preside over further increases in the number of U.S. troops fighting the resurgent Taliban militia in Afghanistan, including a fresh Marine battalion in November and an additional Army brigade in January.
The new plans are likely to represent Bush’s last major decision on the deployment of U.S. troops in the two wars that have come to define his presidency. The plans also mean either Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will have to cope with decisions on wartime troop levels immediately after taking office Jan. 20.
Bush’s plans, which were first recommended last week by the Pentagon, effectively shift a similar number of combat troops from an improving situation in Iraq to a worsening conflict in Afghanistan, where the increasing death toll among foreign troops has surpassed those in Iraq in recent months.
In his speech this morning, Bush will praise significant progress in Iraq while acknowledging that “huge challenges in Afghanistan remain,” according to the White House.
“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” Bush says in his prepared remarks, to be delivered at the National Defense University in Washington. “As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security – and that requires more troops.”
Bush will also argue that his plans for a continued drawdown of troops and support personnel from Iraq underscores the dramatic reduction in violence there, which he credits to a rapid increase in U.S. troops that began in early 2007. In addition to the Army combat brigade in February, the administration plans to withdraw a Marine battalion with 1,100 members and 3,400 support troops from Iraq over the next several months.
The announcement amounts to an endorsement of a compromise plan among military leaders, who were divided on how quickly U.S. combat troops could be safely withdrawn from Iraq. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, initially sought to sustain the current level of 15 Army combat brigades through June of 2009, while members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged a swifter reduction, according to senior military officials.
Security gains in Iraq, most notably in Anbar province, Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, led Adm. Michael Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, to favor cutting the force in Iraq to 14 combat brigades by February.
Perhaps most striking, Bush will spend almost half of his address today on Afghanistan rather than Iraq. In his remarks, he says that despite some early U.S. successes and a “quiet surge” in U.S. forces over the last two years, from 21,000 to 31,000, “enemies of a free Afghanistan refused to give up the fight.”