The Pentagon plans to shift more forces to Afghanistan, where militant attacks are on the rise, but any large-scale shift in forces will likely be left to the next administration. Mr. Bush credited the 2007 troop surge strategy on Tuesday, saying it facilitated a drop in violence to levels not seen since 2004, allowing for a reduction in troops.
“Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight,” the president said in his speech at the U.S. National Defense University, according to early excerpts.
“If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, General (David) Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”
With the reduction in troop levels, the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be just above pre-surge levels. The surge added 30,000 troops to Iraq, 20,000 of whom have returned home without being replaced.
About 3,400 support forces will leave Iraq over the next several months, along with a combat drawdown including one Marine battalion of about 1,000 troops slated to return in November and an Army combat brigade of about 4,000 scheduled for a February departure.
The United States has around 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. NATO commanders there are calling for an additional 12,000 troops to be added to the country to help combat a resurgent Taliban and the rise in attacks against U.S. and NATO forces.
President Bush announced that a Marine battalion and an Army combat brigade will be deployed to Afghanistan to help.
“As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security, and that requires more troops,” he said.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had argued to keep troop levels fairly level for even longer, until next summer, but other military strategists, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the need to shift more troops to Afghanistan is too great, reported the Associated Press.
The modest size in troop reduction reflects the administration’s desire not to lose the gains seen in Iraq
“Civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down and normal life is returning to communities across the country,” Bush said in his speech.
However, Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the AP that the conservative nature of the plan means “continuing stress on both the active and reserve forces.”
Democrats also offered criticism of the plan, including that Mr. Bush isn’t doing enough to get troops out of Iraq, and into Afghanistan, where violence is rising.
“The President’s plan to reduce force levels in Iraq may seem to signal movement in the right direction, but it really defers troop reductions until the next administration,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo, according to the AP.