By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008
President Bush plans to announce today that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year's troop buildup in an effort to alleviate the tremendous stress on the military, administration officials said.
The move is in response to intense pressure from service commanders who have expressed anxiety about the toll of long deployments on their soldiers and, more broadly, about the U.S. military's ability to confront unanticipated threats. Bush will announce the decision during a national speech, in which aides said he will also embrace Army Gen. David H. Petraeus's plan to indefinitely suspend a drawdown of forces.
The twin decisions may set the course for U.S. policy in Iraq through the fall and perhaps for the rest of Bush's presidency. Frustrated by their inability to force Bush to shift direction since they took over Capitol Hill more than a year ago, congressional Democrats began coalescing behind a strategy of trying to force the Iraqis to shoulder more of the costs of the war and reconstruction. Key Republicans signaled support for the approach.
The political maneuvering came as Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker completed two days of lengthy congressional hearings in search of continued support for the war effort. Their conclusion that Iraq has begun making significant but fragile progress on both security and political fronts changed few minds and left lawmakers in both parties impatient for a clear path to resolution.
The bottom line seems to be that after pulling out the extra forces Bush sent last year, the United States will keep about 140,000 troops in Iraq at least through the November presidential election. In the short term, the debate in Washington instead will focus more intently on trade-offs at home, including the strain on the armed forces and the Treasury.
The elimination of 15-month tours will restore deployments to an equal balance of one year in the war zone followed by one year at home. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates extended the tours almost exactly a year ago to provide enough forces for Bush's "surge" of 20,000 additional combat troops and 8,000 support troops. But Army leaders have complained about the strain.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's outgoing vice chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that the Army is "out of balance" and that the current demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan "exceeds the sustainable supply." He added that "soldiers, families, support systems and equipment are stretched and stressed by the demands of lengthy and repeated deployments, with insufficient recovery time."
Petraeus said he favors scaling back the combat tours. "I have certainly given my support to 12-month deployments," he said. "Operationally, we would welcome that, both because of the strain and the stress, and really just a general recognition of the value in that. And hopefully, this reduction can allow that over time."
But Bush's decision will affect only those troops sent to Iraq as of Aug. 1 or later, meaning that those already there still have to complete 15-month tours. Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, an advocacy group, said that nearly half of the Army's active-duty frontline units are currently deployed for 15 months, and that Bush's decision leaves them out.
"In short, this is a hollow announcement; it has no immediate effect," Muller said. "It is nothing more than political posturing at the expense of our troops. Our soldiers are unraveling and they need their commander in chief to provide immediate relief."
House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) applauded Bush's move. "But it only resets us to where we were last winter," he added. "This pace will still wear our troops out." Ilan Goldenberg, a scholar at the National Security Network, said on a conference call organized by antiwar activists that Bush cannot portray the move as a sign of progress. "The military is so strained, the president really didn't have a choice," he said.
Democrats moved to press Bush on another front, linking the sagging U.S. economy to escalating war costs. On a day when oil hit $112 a barrel for the first time, lawmakers said that energy-rich Iraq should be footing more of its own bills. "We've put about $45 billion into Iraq's reconstruction . . . and they have not spent their own resources," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). "They have got to have some skin in the game."
Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) met yesterday to craft a bipartisan bill to make Iraq take on a greater share of the financial burden. Under their plan, any future U.S. money for reconstruction would take the form of a loan to be repaid, and Baghdad would have to pay for fuel used by U.S. troops and for the training of its own security forces, and make payments to the predominantly Sunni fighters in the Awakening movement taking on al-Qaeda.
"It's time, in fact long past time, the Iraqis start bearing a larger portion of the costs for this war," Collins said. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) echoed the sentiment. "Doesn't it just make sense that record-high gas prices pay for the reconstruction of Iraq, rather than the American taxpayer?" he asked.
Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of the staunchest war supporters and a key ally of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, agreed that Bush made a mistake by not making Iraqis repay U.S. costs from the start. "The best thing we can do for the people of Iraq is to make them a stakeholder in their own country," he said.
As Congress prepares to take up a new war spending bill, House Democratic defense appropriators agreed this week on three policy prescriptions: a government-wide ban on torture, a mandate that soldiers and Marines be given at least a month at home for every month in combat, and a withdrawal timetable that would be longer than past failed efforts and that would explicitly leave the details of withdrawal to military commanders.
That would force a new showdown with Bush, who has opposed all three ideas. During a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House yesterday, Bush also urged lawmakers not to pack domestic spending into the war-funding bill. But Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), an Appropriations defense subcommittee member, said war funding is likely to total $108 billion, with as much as $30 billion in domestic spending.
A White House budget document indicates that the administration is expecting Democrats to request $5.8 billion for continuing Gulf Coast hurricane relief, up to $400 million for Western wildfires, as much as $2 billion for the 2010 Census, $1 billion for nutrition for women and infants, $1 billion for food stamps and $500 million for Head Start. As much as $15 billion is expected for unemployment insurance.
Republicans quickly charged Democrats with loading pork-barrel spending onto the backs of soldiers. "The buffet is open," the House Republican Conference said.
But Democrats said the economic downturn has changed the political equation. "There is a connection between the state of our economy and Iraq and what we're spending over there," said Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.). "We need to spend more money on infrastructure, on roads and bridges that would have a stimulative effect on the economy, and we're not doing those things because of all the money we're spending in Iraq."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.