Four months after announcing troop reductions in Iraq, President Bush is now sending signals that the cuts may not continue past this summer, a development likely to infuriate Democrats and renew concerns among military planners about strains on the force.
Bush has made no decisions yet on troop reductions to follow those he announced last September. But White House officials said Bush had been taking the opportunity, as he did in Monday’s State of the Union address, to prepare Americans for the possibility that, when he leaves office a year from now, the military presence in Iraq will be just as large as it was a year ago, or even slightly larger.
These officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush wanted to tamp down criticism that a large, sustained presence in Iraq would harm the overall health of the military — a view held not only by Democrats, but by some members of his own Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Within the Pentagon, senior officers have struggled to balance the demands of the Iraq war against the competing demands to recruit, train, and retain a robust and growing ground force. That institutional tension is personified by two of Bush’s top generals, David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff. Petraeus’ mission is to win the war; Casey must also worry about the health of the whole Army.
“We’re concerned about the health of the force as well, but the most important thing is that they succeed in Iraq,” said one senior White House official, adding, “If the commanders on the ground believe we need to maintain the troop numbers at the current level to maintain security for a little while longer, then that’s what the president will do.”
That strong White House tilt in favor of Petraeus comes as he prepares to testify before Congress in April about the next step in Iraq. In September, based on Petraeus’ earlier recommendation, Bush announced that he intended to withdraw five combat brigades and Marine units — roughly 20,000 troops — from Iraq by July. That would leave 15 combat brigades in place.
In his address to Congress, Bush spoke of those reductions, but not of any future ones.
What a continuing commitment of 15 brigades — more than 130,000 troops — would mean for the Army as a whole is said to be a major concern of Casey, among others on the joint staff.