The Army could begin drawing down its troop levels in Iraq as soon as next year in what would be the first significant drop in U.S. forces since the beginning of the war, according to one of the Army's top generals.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, told defense reporters yesterday that he sees the next rotation of troops in Iraq as smaller than the current standing force of about 138,000 troops, though he declined to speculate on how much smaller. He said top combat commanders are discussing the possibility of a smaller U.S. presence in Iraq over the next two years, a decision that could come as soon as April, when Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who commands the troops in Iraq, meets with defense officials in Washington.
"I think for the next force rotation, we'll start seeing that . . . will be smaller than the force that's in there right now," Cody said.
A determining factor in scaling back force levels, Cody said, will be the Iraqi security forces' ability to take a greater role in protecting the country from insurgents. Defense officials have been hoping to be able to withdraw some troops as Iraqi forces are activated, but it is unclear how capable those forces are and when they will be able to handle the insurgency.
Cody said the shift could come "because of the success in the elections, and because of the success against the [insurgency], as well as the rapid growth of the Iraqi national guard and the Iraqi Army."
There are approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now. That total includes the standing force of about 138,000, as well as more than 10,000 additional troops whose tours were temporarily extended to provide extra security for the January elections.
The current number of American troops in Iraq is far above what U.S. commanders had planned to have there at this point, and the inflated troop levels have been straining the Army in various ways. An unexpectedly resilient insurgency and a consistent barrage of sophisticated attacks have kept U.S. troops on the offensive across a large swath of Iraq as they hunt for the insurgents.
U.S. commanders are buoyed by what they see as a significant rise in the number of Iraqi security personnel amid a slightly waning insurgency. Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, who runs the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that fewer attacks indicate that the character of the insurgency is shifting and that an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 insurgents remain.
Jacoby's estimates yesterday came after senior defense officials for months hesitated to make a public accounting of the insurgency, especially on Capitol Hill. Part of that hesitation has stemmed from a lack of confidence in intelligence reports.
But Jacoby's numbers are similar to those cited by the military over the past six months, indicating that the insurgency has not diminished significantly, despite U.S. efforts to target its members. U.S. officials hope the new Iraqi forces, with their connections around the country, will help provide vital intelligence for attacks on the insurgency's core.
According to Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in charge of training the Iraqi forces, there are 142,000 trained and equipped Iraqi police officers, soldiers, sailors and airmen. Some of the Iraqi units have their own zones of responsibility and are working with U.S. troops in several parts of the country. Officials expect the Iraqi forces to outnumber U.S. forces by the end of the year.
"The entire Iraqi army will be at or over strength in about three weeks," Petraeus said in an e-mail message this week. "And we're building more and more. There's increasing confidence in the ranks, and the units are taking the fight to the enemy."
Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said the strain on the military is one compelling reason to begin reducing troop levels as soon as possible.
"We've been cutting this really fine and asking soldiers to do a . . . lot more than we thought," Donnelly said. "There's a pretty strong reason to give this a try and see if we can get away with it."