By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
The Defense Department plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by about 2,500 over the next few months, a 13 percent drop that will reflect an increasing NATO presence there, officials said yesterday.
The move, which has yet to be finalized, would reduce the number of U.S. forces from 19,000 to about 16,500. Instead of sending the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade to replace the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as planned, the Army instead would send a 1,200-troop task force from the unit, a Pentagon official said yesterday. An announcement of the reduction could come soon.
Officials also said plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq are likely to go forward following last week's Iraqi elections, as the U.S. military continues to shift responsibility for security to Iraqi forces. The planned reduction, first reported last month, could bring the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 129,000 from a baseline of 138,000. There are approximately 150,000 U.S. troops there now because military strength was increased for the elections.
While cautioning that the plans are under discussion, officials in Iraq and Washington said that the number of U.S. combat brigades likely will decline from 17 to 15 in the spring, a measured reduction designed to give Iraqis more control over security while continuing to provide a strong U.S. presence.
One brigade, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, will remain in Kuwait on a training mission, allowing commanders in Iraq to draw on its approximately 5,000 troops in the event help is needed.
"They will be combat ready and in a backup position," said one defense official familiar with the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details have not been announced. "The goal is as it has been, to adjust force levels based on the security situation on the ground. This will be the beginning of a shift to more Iraqi responsibility. It will be a slow, deliberate adjustment."
The Army also plans to send a smaller contingent from the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division to Iraq over the winter. Instead of sending the entire brigade, officials plan to send roughly 1,000 officers into Iraq to assist Iraqi forces as mobile training teams, officials said.
The moves come as Congress has grown more vocal about making 2006 a year of transition in the war zones, with allies and Iraqi forces taking more of a role in security. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said Friday he expects the troop level there to be down to about 140,000 by the end of January and said he was evaluating the possibility of further reductions by the end of February.
Michael O'Hanlon, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution, said he believed the reduction was a "prudent step" as well as a cautious one.
"They're still being quite careful about it, and they could be going faster," O'Hanlon said. "There would be a benefit to being more assertive."