By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he cannot guarantee that there will be substantial withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq this year, and warned instead that leaving that country precipitously could create a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
Rumsfeld told a Senate panel yesterday that he still hopes a big troop cut will occur this year but added, "I can't promise it."
He also emphasized the possible negative consequences of a swift pullout. "For it to be turned over to extremists would be a terrible thing for that part of the world and for the free world and for free people everywhere," he said. There are about 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from a peak of about 160,000 earlier this year but near the average level for the last three years.
Administration officials have repeatedly said they hope to cut the U.S. presence in Iraq this year, and some lawmakers appear to be growing impatient as the year nears the six-month mark.
"We just seem to have a policy of more of the same," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "The struggle to form a government goes on interminably. The president says there's a workable strategy in place that will allow for a significant troop withdrawal this year. But since he said that, we've seen a huge rise in ethnic violence, the proliferation of militias that seem out of control, certainly a lengthening of the American casualty roster."
Rumsfeld also reprised some of his past optimism about the war in Iraq, which has grown increasingly unpopular with the public and dragged down President Bush's poll ratings in recent months. With the formation of a new government almost complete, Rumsfeld said, Iraq has "entered a hopeful new phase in what has been a long and difficult journey."
Asked about Rumsfeld's disinclination to promise big troop cuts, Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, commented, "Reality intrudes." He said it was his view that "it was absurd to think that this was going to be the year of withdrawal," when the reality is that a large U.S. troop presence will be required for several years. "It's probably better to put it on the table now, instead of closer to the midterm elections" in November, he added.
Retired Army Col. Richard H. Sinnreich, an expert on defense planning and strategy, offered a more negative interpretation -- that the Bush administration "is getting desperate." He said, "Midterm elections are approaching and the administration's in a fix: The Iraqis aren't ready and everyone knows it, but we're beginning to break the bank," in terms of straining the U.S. military.
Much of the hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee focused on Bush's decision earlier this week to place 6,000 National Guard soldiers on the U.S.-Mexican border. "It is not going to be a stress on the National Guard to do that function," Rumsfeld insisted. To the contrary, he said, "It will be beneficial to the Guard because they'll be doing the very same things they would be doing if they were training their two weeks on an exercise basis, as opposed to doing something that the country really needs."
Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, who also appeared, emphasized that the new border mission will use only about 2 percent of the 445,000 troops in the Guard. "We have sufficient soldiers to do the overseas war fight, prepare for the upcoming hurricane season, [and] still have the forces that we need to respond for terrorism in this country or a WMD event," Blum said.
On a related issue, Rumsfeld said he opposes giving the Guard a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which currently has six members: the chairman, the vice chairman, and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Many lawmakers support an expansion, but Rumsfeld said that "the way we look at it is that the Army includes the total Army, and the Air Force the total Air Force, and that to begin to segment them inside the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not a good idea."
Blum said he is confident the Pentagon leadership will ensure that the Army and Air Force give the Guard better treatment than it has received in the past, saying that current officials are committed "to not repeating the long and sordid past that the Guard has had with its parent services."
But the hearing, the first since several prominent retired generals called for Rumsfeld's resignation last month, repeatedly returned to Iraq.
Asked about the generals' criticism, Rumsfeld minimized the number of critics as a handful out of several thousand, and attributed it to dislike of the changes he has brought to the Pentagon. "I really, honestly believe that if you undertake the kinds of transforming in this department, any big department, and if you do something, somebody's not going to like it," he said. "And we've done a lot."