Election delay may slow U.S. troop drawdown

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

U.S. commanders may have to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq if Baghdad delays national elections scheduled for Jan. 16 or if other political instability develops, senior Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

A more protracted drawdown of the 120,000 troops now in Iraq would not prevent President Obama from boosting the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it could increase stress on American ground forces, Vice Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Michèle A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, told the committee that if Iraq's parliament does not pass an election law within two weeks, the polling date would slip to later in January. In that event, she said, the U.S.-led command in Iraq "would need to engage with the government of Iraq to do some contingency planning on how to secure the elections at a later date, and that might well have implications."

Lawmakers asked whether Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, would be forced to stick to the current timetable for reducing the number of U.S. troops there to 50,000 by the end of August, regardless of a delay in the elections. Odierno has said recently that security in Iraq, while improving, is still not "enduring," and has sought to maintain a relatively high level of troops there for a period after the elections to help prevent any outbreak of political violence.

"The drawdown plan is not rigid," Flournoy replied. "It is conditions-based. It leaves room for reevaluation and adjustment, in terms of the pace of the drawdown between now and the end of 2011. So, if need be, we will reexamine things based on conditions on the ground."

On Wednesday, Iraqi lawmakers postponed until Sunday a debate over a law that would govern how the country's parliamentary elections are run, leading to concern in Washington that the Jan. 16 vote might be delayed.

The Obama administration is pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stick with the current timetable, Flournoy said. "We will have contingency plans to adjust, if necessary. But right now, we're using all of our diplomatic and other leverage to try to make sure the elections happen on time," she said.

The current plan for drawing down troops in Iraq is on track and provides leeway for Obama to increase troops in Afghanistan, Winnefeld said.

"We have adequate capacity right now . . . whatever decision the president makes on Afghanistan," Winnefeld said. But, he added, "if you were to keep more forces in Iraq and you plussed-up in Afghanistan, of course, you would be imposing more health-of-the-force risks on the force."

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