By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005
As American troops marked their third Christmas in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer said their number could decline in 2006 but that there is no specific target for withdrawals. He cautioned that more troops could be needed to cope with insurgent activity.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "We do not have a plan that specifically says we'll be down below 100,000 by the end of the year. What we have is a plan that allows us to keep what we have today for the foreseeable future and then off-ramps and on-ramps based on conditions on the ground."
The Bush administration hopes that more and more territory can be handed over to Iraqi units as those forces become capable of defending the country themselves, Pace said.
But, in a tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. military presence is still crucial to staving off insurgents, Pace said: "The enemy has a vote in this, and if they were to cause some kind of problems that required more troops, then we would do exactly what we've done in the past, which is give the commanders on the ground what they need. And in that case, you could see troop level go up a little bit to handle that problem."
Currently, there are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, reflecting a beefed-up presence before elections earlier this month.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the number could drop to 130,000 by March. President Bush and other U.S. officials have also indicated that U.S. forces will increasingly shift to training Iraqi troops.
Pace said any reduction in the U.S. presence would be visible on a map of Iraq. "You'll be able to have two colors on it -- one that's currently controlled mostly by coalition forces, and the other that's currently controlled mostly by Iraqi forces -- and watch the colors change."
Separately, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell warned that U.S. force levels are unsustainable, and he predicted that this would cause withdrawals to occur.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Powell said: "I don't think we can sustain this level of presence with the size force that we have. . . . So I think the numbers will come down for that reason."
Powell also said the increasing capability of Iraqi armed forces should help the United States withdraw. But he added that this would depend on the progress in controlling militias that are operating in much of the country.
"We don't want to go out and fight all the militias, but somehow the Iraqis are going to have to put in place a political system that says the only ones who hold the power of the state, the military and police power . . . is the state and not individual militias . . . loyal to a particular secular or religious figure," Powell said.
On the controversy over the president's use of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on people within the United States as part of the campaign against terrorism, Powell said that when he was in the Cabinet, he was not told that Bush authorized a warrantless NSA surveillance operation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But he said that the program "should continue."
He distanced himself, however, from the administration on whether to involve the courts. "It didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go get the warrants," Powell said. "And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it. The law provides for that."