Strains to Remain Despite Shorter Tours, Say Gates, Mullen

President Bush has ordered a halt in U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after July, embracing the recommendation of his top commander in the war. Bush says that Gen. David Petraeus will 'have all the time he needs.' Video by AP
By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 11, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear yesterday that President Bush's announced reduction in the length of active-duty Army combat tours from 15 to 12 months, while welcome, would neither end the risk the United States faces from a lack of ready ground forces nor provide all the relief desired for overstretched troops and their families.

Striking a tone distinct from that of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gates and Mullen also told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they do not see the halt in U.S. troop reductions from Iraq as indefinite. Gates reiterated that he expects only a "brief pause" in the drawdown before it continues this fall.

"I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one, and I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In testimony this week, Petraeus declined to use the words "brief" or "pause" to describe the time needed to assess further troop reductions, and said the process could last months. "There certainly is a difference in the way we've described it," Gates said, referring to Petraeus, in response to questions from Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman.

Mullen stressed that the evaluation time is "not a blank check; it's not an open-ended commitment of troops," he said, adding that he seeks more-frequent updates from Petraeus.

The departure of about 17,500 soldiers and 4,000 Marines by July will bring the number of troops in Iraq to about 140,000. The troop level was 130,000 before Bush's troop buildup last year.

At that level, Mullen said, there will still not be enough U.S. troops available to meet two other pressing priorities: sending as many as three more combat brigades to Afghanistan and increasing the time soldiers have at home to more than a year, so they can both train for the full range of combat and have more family time.

"The only relief valve that I see out there that would provide that would be level of forces in Iraq," Mullen said. "We'd need to come down a certain number of brigades before we could start to meet the . . . legitimate force requirements that we have in Afghanistan that we just can't fill."

The Bush administration has pressed NATO allies to provide more troops for Afghanistan. But Gates said that while allies will offer some additional forces, he does not expect them to amount to the three brigades -- 10,000 to 12,000 troops -- that the NATO commander in Afghanistan says are needed.

Mullen said the United States will remain in a level of "particularly high risk for the next two years" while the Army and Marine Corps work to expand their active-duty ranks to 547,000 and 202,000, respectively.

Gates and Mullen said they are seeking to double the amount of time, to two years, that active-duty soldiers will have at home. Troops are "looking for some relief," Mullen said. "In addition to shorter deployments, they'd like to stay home longer."

Soldiers had mixed reactions to Bush's announcement yesterday of a return to the pre-"surge" 12-month deployments. The change will not take effect until Aug. 1 and will not affect active-duty Army units now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spec. Seth Erickson, 28, of Dover, Ohio, said 12-month tours will make his life easier. "It's a good move. It will help the soldiers and it will boost morale," he said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Fort Drum, N.Y. Erickson deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, in August 2006 on a 12-month tour that was extended to 15 months. "It was a little frustrating," he said.

Other soldiers said the return to 12-month tours should not be viewed as a "reduction" because the Army is just returning to its normal deployment schedule for the wars.

"At 12 months, we were still stressed and stretched thin," said Spec. William Maule, 24, of Jacksonville, Fla., who also deployed with the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. "Fifteen months just made it worse. I don't think returning to 12 months is going to fix the original problem."

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