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Debate Grows on Pause in Troop Cuts
U.S. Leaders Differ on Pace Of Withdrawals

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

Senior Pentagon leaders said yesterday that Gen. David H. Petraeus's call for a pause in troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer represents only one view on the issue -- albeit an important one -- and that they would recommend that President Bush also consider the stress on U.S. ground forces and other global military risks when determining future troop levels.

"I find all the talk about a freeze or a pause in Iraq so interesting," said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I know General Petraeus has said publicly he wants to be able to assess the situation after the surge brigades come home," Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference. But he stressed that the Joint Chiefs and Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command, are also working on recommendations for force levels in Iraq, not in opposition to Petraeus but "from different perspectives."

"We will all present our independent assessments in the spring, and the president will make his decision," Mullen said. He said Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has not made any recommendations on a pause to his superiors in the military chain of command, adding that one should "not presume the answers."

The statements reflect divergent priorities among U.S. military leaders over the pace of troop withdrawals from Iraq, as well as a growing debate on whether to shift more U.S. forces to Afghanistan to prevent further deteriorations in security there, according to senior military officials.

For example, Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said yesterday that the Marine Corps agreed to dispatch 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan this spring, but he added that he cannot sustain the grueling pace of deployments for Marines -- who now spend as much time at war as at home -- unless more Marines are pulled out of Iraq.

"We have told the secretary that . . . we're taking one for the team here," Conway told a gathering of reporters yesterday, referring to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "The point that we have made in the discussions is that we can't continue to do it without relief elsewhere."

Mullen, Conway and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, particularly Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, have voiced concern about declining military readiness and the effects of long war-zone rotations in Iraq on troops and their families.

At a biannual meeting between the Joint Chiefs and regional U.S. commanders at the Pentagon this week, Mullen said Casey cited the need to end the current 15-month Army deployments "as rapidly as possible," so soldiers could spend more time at home with their families.

Fallon, who also attended the conference, has highlighted regional threats in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere. Petraeus is more narrowly focused on the mission in Iraq, Mullen and others said.

"Petraeus will focus on Iraq like a laser. That's his job," Conway said. "Admiral Fallon has a larger responsibility. He's fighting two fights in his area, and one is going pretty good, and one -- according to some sources -- not so good," he said, referring to Afghanistan.

Conway suggested that declining violence in Iraq could permit the withdrawal of more Marines. He said that security improvements in Iraq's western Anbar province, where most of the 25,000 Marines in Iraq are deployed, are "not reversible." Attacks and casualties have plummeted this year in Anbar, which had long been a Sunni insurgent stronghold and one of the most violent regions of the country.

Military leaders are debating whether to move forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, Conway said. "Now . . . the discussion is going to become: As things continue to improve in Iraq, at what point do we shift focus into Afghanistan to try to create the same margins of success there?"

But he said there is disagreement within the military over security trends in Afghanistan and the proper strategy there. "We as a department need to see it the same way, and quite frankly at this point in time we just don't," Conway said.

The number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq, currently 19, will decline to 15 under the drawdown plan Bush announced in September. Gates has expressed hope that the withdrawals continue at the same pace, meaning that 10 combat brigades -- approximately 35,000 to 40,000 combat troops -- would remain in Iraq by the end of the year, a hope that he reiterated last week.

Once the number of brigades falls to 10, Conway predicted, "there's going to be a strong argument to say that maybe we ought to put more forces into Afghanistan." But he said the Marine Corps is not large enough to operate effectively in both places. "We cannot have one foot in Afghanistan and one foot in Iraq," he said.

At the meeting this week, senior military leaders also discussed the upcoming Pentagon budget, and Mullen and Conway expressed the view that it should be maintained at a minimum of 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. The fiscal 2008 budget asked for $481 billion in defense spending, which represented just under 4 percent of gross domestic product -- a much lower share than during previous modern wars.

"I really do believe this 4 percent floor is important," Mullen said, "given the world we're living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are in fact global, not just in the Middle East."

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