By Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 26, 2006
Senate Democrats reacted angrily yesterday to a report that the U.S. commander in Iraq had privately presented a plan for significant troop reductions in the same week they came under attack by Republicans for trying to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that the plan attributed to Gen. George W. Casey resembles the thinking of many Democrats who voted for a nonbinding resolution to begin a troop drawdown in December. That resolution was defeated Thursday on a largely party-line vote in the Senate.
"That means the only people who have fought us and fought us against the timetable, the only ones still saying there shouldn't be a timetable really are the Republicans in the United States Senate and in the Congress," Boxer said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Now it turns out we're in sync with General Casey."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), one of the two sponsors of the nonbinding resolution, which offered no pace or completion date for a withdrawal, said the report is another sign of what he termed one of the "worst-kept secrets in town" -- that the administration intends to pull out troops before the midterm elections in November.
"It shouldn't be a political decision, but it is going to be with this administration," Levin said on "Fox News Sunday." "It's as clear as your face, which is mighty clear, that before this election, this November, there's going to be troop reductions in Iraq, and the president will then claim some kind of progress or victory."
At issue was a report yesterday in the New York Times that Casey presented a private briefing at the Pentagon last week in which he projected that the number of U.S. combat brigades -- each with about 3,500 troops -- would decrease from 14 to five or six by the end of 2007. About 127,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq, including many support troops beyond the combat brigades.
White House and Pentagon officials declined to confirm the projections, saying only that Casey met with President Bush on Friday to discuss how the military might proceed in Iraq after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki forms a new government. Bush has often said the U.S. military will stand down as Iraqi forces become adequately trained to handle security.
One White House official said there was "no formal plan presented or signed off on" in Casey's meeting with Bush, only a discussion of "various scenarios" to guide their talks with the new Iraqi government.
"We are entering a phase where discussions with the Iraqis will begin to practically define what 'stand up, stand down' will look like over the next two years," said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal conversations.
This official dismissed the suggestion by some Democrats that Casey's approach resembles their approach. "A conditions-based strategy outlined by our generals on the ground is a far cry from politicians in Washington setting an arbitrary date for withdrawal," the official said.
A Pentagon official said his impression is that Bush and Casey had no lengthy discussion about troop reductions, and that any projections of specific numbers remain speculative. This source noted that Casey had said that he hoped U.S. force levels would be substantially reduced this year but has decided against such a move because of the continuing violence in Iraq.
"I think there will be a modest decrease between now and the end of the year," the official added. But, he concluded, "Nobody really knows."
U.S. commanders have long wanted to cut the size of their force in Iraq. But plans to do so have proven difficult to realize.
Before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, the Pentagon's war plans called for a swift reduction, from about 150,000 to 30,000 by the early autumn of that year. Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy defense secretary, told a congressional committee that the thinking behind this was that "it is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam [Hussein] Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army -- hard to imagine."
That plan was shelved when a fierce insurgency broke out in the summer of 2003. That fall, top commanders hoped to cut the U.S. presence to about 100,000 by the next summer. But a major escalation in violence in the spring of 2004, along with the collapse of the new Iraqi police force and parts of the new army, forced that plan to be discarded as well.
The result is that the United States has kept about 135,000 soldiers in Iraq for the past three years, with occasional fluctuations to as high as 160,000.
The widespread expectation inside the Army is that the U.S. presence will be cut to about 100,000 by the end of this year, with further reductions in 2007 to perhaps 50,000 to 75,000. That size could be maintained almost indefinitely by the Army and the Marine Corps. But whether those new plans will be realized will depend on events in Iraq, which have proven difficult to predict.
Casey's meeting with Bush followed an eventful several weeks in Iraq that included the death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of a new Iraqi government. It also followed particularly rancorous debates in the House and Senate, in which GOP lawmakers -- with the encouragement of the White House -- went after Democrats for being insufficiently supportive of the war effort and said decisions about issues such as troop deployments should remain with the president.
Coming so soon after the congressional debates, the report of Casey's briefing served to keep the debate going another day.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored an unsuccessful resolution setting a July 1, 2007, deadline for the removal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, issued a statement saying the Casey plan looks "an awful lot like what the Republicans spent the last week attacking. Will the partisan attack dogs now turn their venom and disinformation campaign on General Casey?"
But Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, played down the significance of the reported briefing. "The department's drawn up plans at all times, but I think it would be wrong now to say that this is the plan that we're going to operate under," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
Warner counseled patience. "We have struggled and made tremendous sacrifice to give this nation its sovereignty," he said. "They are now beginning to exercise this sovereignty with a young government. Give them a chance to move out. We will consult with them. I'm confident our government will not let them make mistakes that would reflect adversely on troop withdrawals."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, voiced some skepticism that the administration can reach the conditions set for withdrawing troops.
"Given current events in Baghdad, in particular, reported on every day quite apart from Anbar province, the violence is horrific," he said on "Face the Nation." "So getting to the plans either of General Casey or Maliki are a broad sweep. But it is good news to know that there are contingency plans."