The senior U.S. operational commander in Iraq said yesterday that he anticipates little change in U.S. troop levels before the next Iraqi elections, scheduled for December, but he reaffirmed that significant reductions could begin early next year.
The remarks by Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the 18th Airborne Corps commander who oversees day-to-day military operations in Iraq, reflected the findings of a major internal assessment of the U.S. campaign plan and were in accord with the views of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey, according to U.S. officers in Baghdad.
The internal review, completed last week, concluded that although signs of military and political progress in Iraq are evident, too much uncertainty remains about the course of the insurgency, the development of Iraqi security forces and the evolution of democratic politics in the country to warrant any lessening in U.S. military strength, the officers said.
"At this point, I would not be prepared to recommend a drawdown prior to the election, certainly not any significant numbers," Vines told reporters at the Pentagon in a phone link from Baghdad.
But looking past the end of the year, the general struck a note of optimism, reaffirming Casey's prediction in March that increased numbers of Iraqi security forces should allow for a fairly significant reduction in U.S. troops by early next year. "I think General Casey's assumption probably is still valid," he said. "I suspect we will probably draw down capability after the elections, because Iraqi security forces are more capable."
Asked whether the reductions could involve as many as four or five brigades, from the 17 currently in Iraq, Vines said: "It would probably be somewhere in that range. That would be my guess."
His assessment comes at a time of growing political pressure on the Bush administration to set a timetable for a withdrawal. Some lawmakers, including Republicans who supported the war, have backed resolutions calling for the formulation of plans to begin reducing U.S. troops in Iraq, who currently number about 135,000.
White House and Pentagon officials have rejected the idea, arguing that setting deadlines would play to the advantage of insurgents who would simply wait out the departure. Vines also spoke against fixing an "arbitrary" schedule, saying he prefers to base any change in U.S. troop levels on the unfolding conditions in Iraq.
But he offered a view of the insurgency that contrasted with recent attempts by some administration officials -- most notably, Vice President Cheney -- to portray the Iraqi resistance as in its final throes. Vines described the opposition as "relatively static" in size and still sufficiently financed to pay fighters to plant explosive devices and undertake other attacks. He made it clear that his judgment about the need to maintain the current troop strength is based on the assumption that "the insurgency will remain at about its current level" for the next several months.
"We don't see the insurgency contracting or expanding right now," he said.
U.S. military figures show that the number of insurgent attacks, which picked up two months ago after a brief lull following the January elections, continue to run at about 60 a day. Commanders can point to some recent successes resulting from intensified counterinsurgency efforts, including a decrease in car-bomb attacks in Baghdad and the capture of two men identified as insurgent leaders in Mosul. But such gains have tended to be offset by the worsening violence elsewhere -- an upsurge, for example, in car-bomb attacks in north-central Iraq.
Casey, in an interview earlier this month with two reporters, referred to U.S. military efforts as "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" -- meaning that as U.S. forces press the insurgency in one area, enemy attacks seem to rise in other places. A senior intelligence officer on Vines's staff calls this the "squirt theory." Such apparent resilience has left senior U.S. officers in Iraq uncertain about the underlying strength of the resistance.
"Clearly, as we take out leadership, we're limiting the capacity of the insurgency," said one officer who closely monitors operations around the country. "But the big question is: What's the ability of the insurgency still to surge?"
U.S. commanders are also still trying to get a firmer handle on how quickly Iraqi military and police forces, whose ranks now number more than 170,000, can be expected to start operating independently of U.S. troops. Vines expressed particular concern about a lack still of "government capacity" to feed, pay and sustain the Iraqi forces. "I suspect they will be working at still developing capacity a couple years from now," he said.
Although not ready to recommend any reduction in U.S. forces, Vines said he foresees no need for an increase to cover the politically difficult period ahead, with a referendum in October on a new constitution and elections in December for a new national government.
"Right now, I would not be in a position to recommend any spike; I don't see that," he said.
But he cautioned that conditions could change. A new surge in violence, for instance, could drive the dispatch of more troops to Iraq or prompt delays in the scheduled departure of some units. Alternately, a political breakthrough could lead to some units returning home earlier than planned.