A Cautious Approach to Troop Reduction

By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 24, 2007

By July, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq should be down to about 130,000, according to the U.S. commander in Baghdad, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus -- about the same number as before President Bush sent additional combat forces there last spring.

But July is hardly a date set in black and white, if one parses the quiet warnings of senior administration officials and even of Petraeus himself.

The first hint of the tenuous nature of Petraeus's prediction came on Sept. 11 when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked the general at an Armed Services Committee hearing what his reaction would be if senators attempted to put his proposed troop reduction into law as part of the defense authorization bill, specifically, mandating a reduction of 5,700 troops by year's end and 30,000 more by next summer.

"Well, I would be uncomfortable with that," Petraeus responded. "We are making projections about what we believe will be the case. They're not hopes, but they are where we think where we will be, and that is the basis for our decisions. . . . But what we should do again is be objective about our assessments as we move along and ensure that we do not surrender a gain for which we've fought very, very hard by being locked into a timetable like that."

On Sept. 14, it was Gen. Peter Pace's turn to offer cautionary words when Petraeus's troop-reduction proposal was mentioned at a Pentagon news conference. Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the withdrawals could come "assuming that the conditions are such that he [Petraeus] can in fact send the troops home that he's projecting sent home."

Two days later, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates picked up the cautionary theme, saying on Fox News Sunday that a "continuation of the successes we've had now" and "additional success, additional security successes in Iraq" were needed "for the drawdowns between December and July." Then he added even more cautionary language: "Everything depends on the conditions on the ground."

Last Wednesday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley offered his nuanced explanation of the general's proposal.

"What General Petraeus talked about was not a timetable, it was an expectation that if progress on security continues, he will be able to make some adjustments and drawdowns," Hadley said at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. Reductions, he said "will depend on the conditions on the ground," among which is "whether the Iraqi security forces will be able to take responsibility for more of the door-to-door population security."

On Friday, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., a division commander in Baghdad, told reporters that only 8.2 percent of Baghdad is under the control of Iraqi forces with the United States in a supporting role. He said he expects that when the additional combat forces begin to leave next year, "we'll still have some areas in Baghdad that are probably still" in need of being cleared "and there may even be some that are under disrupt," meaning that open fighting is going on.

Before the largest of the reductions proposed for next summer, Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, will again report to Congress. Their next appearance is slated for March.

When Bush announced his support for Petraeus's recommendations, he said he wanted the update "so we can adjust our military and civilian resources accordingly. . . . At that time, they will provide a fresh assessment of the situation in Iraq and of the troop levels and resources we need to meet our national security objectives."

There is no guarantee that the "fresh assessment" the president wants Petraeus to deliver six months from now will meet the "projections" the general made this month that would allow the reductions to take place. As Hadley put it, what "the general talked about was not a timetable, it was an expectation."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com

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