Buoyed by a higher turnout and less violence than expected in Sunday's Iraqi elections, Pentagon authorities have decided to start reducing the level of U.S. forces in Iraq next month by about 15,000 troops, down to about 135,000, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said yesterday.
The reduction involves about three brigades of Army soldiers and Marines whose tours were extended last month to bolster security ahead of the elections, and an additional 1,500 airborne soldiers who were rushed to Iraq for a four-month stint.
Paul Wolfowitz says the fiscal 2007 Pentagon budget allows for more permanent Army forces.
(Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
"I think we'll be able to come down to the level that was projected before this election," Wolfowitz said.
But testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wolfowitz also warned of "a very difficult road ahead" in defeating Iraqi insurgents and indicated that no further drop in U.S. troops was planned this year. Another senior Pentagon official said after the hearing that the initial decrease did not reflect an improved security situation in Iraq but was simply a recognition that the forces kept specifically for the election were no longer needed and could leave as previously scheduled.
The question of when U.S. forces can begin to withdraw from Iraq has generated intense political debate that has accelerated since Sunday's elections. President Bush and other administration officials have said the pace of withdrawal will depend on how quickly Iraqi forces can be trained and equipped to maintain security there.
As a sign this effort continues to lag, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported at yesterday's hearing that less than one-third of the troops and police that the Pentagon says have been trained and equipped are adequately prepared to handle most threats.
Wolfowitz also disclosed that a decision had been made to make room in the Pentagon budget for a permanent increase in Army forces starting in fiscal 2007. Up to now, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had backed only a temporary three-year rise of 30,000 troops in the size of the Army, to 512,000, to facilitate a restructuring of brigades. Plans have called for this increase to be paid for in supplemental appropriations through 2006.
A number of lawmakers and defense specialists have argued that a permanent increase in troop level is needed to relieve the continuing stress on active and reserve units likely to result from the long-term demands of the war in Iraq, worldwide counterterrorism operations and other potential threats.
Wolfowitz said the exact extent of the Army's growth will be a focus of a major review of Pentagon strategy and programs this year, indicating that Rumsfeld had made no final judgment. But a revised five-year defense budget that will be released next week as part of Bush's 2006 budget request will provide for a permanently larger Army, he said.
"We've had to make some very considerable adjustments in the rest of the defense program in order to pay for that," Wolfowitz said.
Democratic senators pressed yesterday for the administration to outline a clear exit strategy. While Republicans on the committee appeared more willing to accept the administration's wait-and-see approach, several joined with Democrats in seeking more definite information about the number of Iraqi security forces currently ready and clearer estimates of the size of the insurgency. Both Wolfowitz and Myers appeared to struggle for answers.
The Pentagon officials displayed a chart showing a total of 136,065 Iraqi forces "trained and equipped" or "operational" as of Monday, including 56,284 army troops and 57,290 police. Myers also reported a surge in recruits over the past two days of 2,500 a day.
But under questioning, Myers said only about 40,000 troops were deployable, meaning they "can go anywhere and do anything." He said he had more confidence about the Iraqi army figures than the police ones. Wolfowitz, in turn, acknowledged high absentee rates in many units, reaching about 40 percent in the Iraqi army.
Both officials cautioned against focusing on numbers, saying capability is more important. But both conceded that the Pentagon still lacks clear ways of assessing such critical Iraqi capabilities as leadership and motivation.
"We're going to have to move to a way where we can start tracking the capability," Myers said. "This is not easy."
The general also fumbled for estimates on the size of the insurgency under questioning first by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's ranking minority member. Levin noted that U.S. estimates have proved grossly inaccurate in the past. He cited a statement last week by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, that 15,000 suspected insurgents had been killed or captured in the past year, after U.S. military authorities had said only 6,000 to 9,000 hard-core fighters existed.
Myers declined to provide a new estimate, saying the Pentagon's figures were classified. He also said coming up "with accurate estimates is just very, very difficult in this type of insurgency," in which common criminals are mixed with foreign fighters, Islamic extremists and former members of Saddam Hussein's government.
This drew a sharp rebuke from two senior committee Republicans -- Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), the chairman, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- who said the public was due some estimate.
"I am disappointed that you don't have even a rough estimate of the number of insurgents," McCain said. "I don't know how you defeat an insurgency unless you have some handle on the number of people that you are facing."
Warner also expressed frustration with NATO's involvement in Iraq, saying it has had time to follow through on a commitment last summer to set up an officer training program for Iraqis.
"The numbers are not where we would like them in terms of NATO's contribution," Wolfowitz agreed. He said the program still lacks 50 out of a total planned staff of 459 but is scheduled to start operating Feb. 20.