By Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 15, 2007
One day after President Bush announced a limited drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that it might be possible to reduce U.S. forces there further over the course of next year, down to approximately 100,000 troops by the end of 2008.
Gates's comments followed a White House report yesterday concluding that the Iraqi government has not made satisfactory progress on several political and security benchmarks. In a congressionally mandated assessment, the administration found only modest improvements since an interim report in July.
In a prime-time Thursday night speech, Bush endorsed the recommendation of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to remove 5,700 troops by Christmas and five additional combat brigades by next summer, reducing the troop level to between 130,000 and 140,000. But Petraeus told Congress this week that he will not recommend further cuts until March.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Gates said he hopes that in March, Petraeus "will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year." Asked if such reductions would mean that U.S. troops would number about 100,000 by the end of 2008, Gates replied: "That would be the math."
Gates spokesman Geoff Morrell later emphasized that the defense secretary's comments were his "personal views" and did not represent administration policy or a formal military plan. But Gates's statements, delivered in his first Washington news conference in two months, underscored the continuing battle inside the administration and on Capitol Hill over the size of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Leading Democrats said yesterday that Bush's proposed cuts do not go far enough in reshaping the U.S. mission.
After judging two months ago that the Iraqi government had made satisfactory progress on eight of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks, the White House yesterday noted "satisfactory progress" on one additional objective, emphasizing a recent agreement among Iraq's senior political leaders to move forward on a plan allowing former Baathists to return to civic life. The report did not note that the lack of a quorum in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet -- currently being boycotted by 15 of 37 ministers -- has prevented further consideration of the measure.
Bush and other officials had once described the 18 benchmarks as critical to judging conditions in Iraq. But as it became clear that the Iraqis would miss many of the goals, the White House has increasingly sought to redefine progress, pointing to local political reconciliation in places such as Anbar province as a more telling sign that the Iraqis can eventually build a functioning state. The 28-page White House report made it clear that the administration does not want to revisit the benchmark issue, saying only that officials will offer a more general assessment of conditions in Iraq in March.
After lunching with troops at the Marine base in Quantico, the president issued another plea for Democrats and others to abandon their opposition to his Iraq policy. "Now's the chance for us to come together as a nation," he said. "Some of us who believe security was paramount were on opposite sides of the debate, where people said we just simply need to bring our troops home. Well, now we've got security in the right direction, and we are bringing our troops home."
Vice President Cheney also offered an upbeat assessment of conditions in Iraq. "Tough work lies ahead," Cheney told the troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. "But the evidence from a theater of war 6,000 miles away, in my mind, is beyond question: The troop surge has achieved some solid results, and in a relatively short period of time."
Democrats reacted to the latest benchmark report with a shrug yesterday. "All it does is point out the failure," said Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "You don't even need to go to the benchmarks to realize what an abject failure this policy has been."
Petraeus told The Washington Post on Thursday that he hopes to reach "sustainable security" in Iraq by June 2009, but he did not provide an estimate of how large a U.S. force would remain involved in backing up Iraqi forces then.
Gates's comments may fill in that blank, to a degree; they could also foster expectations for Petraeus to recommend further cuts in six months.
The 100,000-troop figure may also indicate what kind of military presence the Bush administration intends to hand off to the next president and what the mission of that "post-surge" force might be.
"I think the mission of that group, when you get to the final steady state, it probably looks a lot like Baker-Hamilton," Gates said, referring to the recommendations issued in December by the Iraq Study Group, which was led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
Gates, who was a member of that group until Bush nominated him to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, noted that the major missions of such a force would include attacking terrorist groups, training and supporting Iraqi security forces, and helping patrol Iraq's borders to deter foreign intervention.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said there is little daylight between Gates and Bush and Petraeus. "I see a man who is secretary of defense expressing what his hope would be," she said. "Everything he said was heavily conditional."
In an interview last night on PBS's "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," Gates elaborated on his views and took issue with the assertion by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that Bush is planning a 10-year occupation of Iraq.
"The reality is that what we're looking at is a conditions-based drawdown to a long-term presence that would be a stabilizing force in Iraq and in the region," Gates said. "It would be a fraction of the force that we have there right now."
By the end of the Bush presidency, Gates said, he hopes to see "a significantly smaller American presence in Iraq, that we would perhaps be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 brigades instead of the 20 that we have right now, and that the situation was continuing to improve in a way that allowed that to happen."
The administration's benchmark assessment yesterday contrasted with a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, which judged that only three of the 18 benchmarks had been met. Among the most significant conclusions of a draft of the GAO report was that the number of Iraqi army units capable of operating without U.S. military assistance had fallen from 10 to six. The numbers, which the U.S. military said were classified, were removed from the published version of the GAO report.
A senior administration official said a major reason for the difference is that the GAO was tasked by Congress to determine whether the benchmarks had been met, while the White House was supposed to assess the kind of progress that was being made by the Iraqis, which is a more subjective judgment.
Although the bottom line of the benchmark report released yesterday differed little from the White House's interim assessment two months ago, the tone of the document had been transformed from a presentation of relatively dry, unadorned facts in July to a more nuanced explanation for ongoing failures.
Benchmark No. 10, for example, requires the Iraqi government to provide its military commanders with the authority to make decisions without civilian interference and to pursue all extremists across sectarian divides. Its performance was judged "not satisfactory" in July as well as this month, but the latest report sympathized with Iraq's "historical prejudices" and said such problems will "only be fully solved by time and the experience of democratic government."
Other minor changes between the July and September reports included the substitution of "mixed progress" for a failing grade on the ability of Iraqi security forces to enforce the law evenhandedly. The Iraqi army is deemed to have made "satisfactory progress," while "some elements still act with sectarian bias" in the national police. Progress toward provincial elections remained mixed but was said to be moving forward.
A chart that Petraeus used in his congressional testimony indicated that the number of independently capable security units had decreased every month since April. Yesterday's administration report, however, said only that the number of such units "has not increased as much as desired."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Ann Scott Tyson and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.