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Bush Faces Pressure to Shift War Priorities
Debate within the administration on Afghanistan and Iraq will come to a head this spring. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is planning to return to Washington with his own assessment of whether recent security gains in that country can be sustained with fewer U.S. troops. The NATO summit is expected to focus heavily on the situation in Afghanistan.
As the White House looks at Iraq, it once again faces competing pressures from different quarters of the military. At Petraeus's recommendation, Bush has already agreed to withdraw five combat brigades by July, bringing the total down to 15. The Joint Chiefs of Staff want to pull out another five by the end of 2008, on the assumption that 10 brigades would be a sustainable force that would allow them to ease the broader stresses on the armed forces, administration officials say.
Petraeus has been more cautious and may want to keep more troops in Iraq to ensure that security gains are not lost. As violence in Iraq falls, Petraeus's stock has risen sharply within the administration, particularly since his strategy appears to be having an effect, and his views may carry the day with Bush. By contrast, many in the Pentagon opposed this year's troop "surge" and are likely to see their influence with the White House diminished.
"The president will have a lot of different advice between now and March, when General Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker come back from Baghdad and report to the Congress," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "He's going to listen to what everyone has to say, but at the end of the day, he wants to know what his commanders on the ground say. So he will listen to what General Petraeus says he needs to maintain the security gains we have made in Iraq."
Some who follow Iraq closely say that the current drop in violence is only a temporary result of American and Iraqi money spread to certain tribes, and a calculated gambit by insurgent forces and militias to wait out an anticipated U.S. withdrawal. "Quiet doesn't signify loyalty and quiet doesn't signify surrender," said Michael Rubin, a former political adviser to the initial U.S. occupation authority in Iraq and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Quiet signifies that [they] get more from being quiet. . . . What we've gotten is a breather. It's not a permanent truce."
Administration officials and outside experts predicted that Bush will be very cautious about accelerating withdrawals. They note that he was the main instigator of the buildup in Iraq, which added 30,000 troops to the war effort earlier this year, despite heavy pressure from inside and outside the administration to begin withdrawing troops.
A new White House emphasis on Afghanistan would probably expose Bush to even more criticism from Democrats, who have long accused him of taking his eye off the hunt for Osama bin Laden with the invasion of Iraq. "It's about time they recognized the problem" in Afghanistan, said former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Democrat, who says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley called him last spring to say that a newspaper column he wrote raising concerns about conditions in Afghanistan was too pessimistic.
But even friends of the White House have voiced concerns. "The strategic consequences of failure in both [Iraq and Afghanistan] are pretty severe," said retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, former NATO supreme commander, in an interview last month, before his appointment by Rice as a Middle East adviser. "The rest of the world is listening to what we are talking about, and we are not talking about Afghanistan on a daily basis. . . . To the extent that we let that slip out of the headlines, that's a mistake."