Gates Pauses Surge Drawdown
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the post-Surge drawdown may have to wait.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday endorsed, for the first time, the idea of pausing the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq this summer. “A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense,” Gates told reporters after meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Petraeus has indicated in recent weeks that he wants a “period of evaluation” this summer to assess the impact on Iraq security of reducing the U.S. military presence from 20 brigades to 15 brigades. Of that five-brigade reduction, only one has departed thus far. The last of the five is to be gone by the end of July.
In his remarks at this U.S. base in southern Baghdad, Gates said Petraeus had given him his view on the drawdown, which some fear could result in giving up some of the security gains of recent months.
In endorsing Petraeus’ suggestion of pausing after July, Gates made it clear that President Bush would have the final say. Until now it had been unclear how Gates felt about the idea of a pause; he had said publicly a number of times that he hoped conditions in Iraq would permit a continuation of the drawdown in the second half of the year. In his remarks here, Gates indicated that he had begun some time ago to lean in Petraeus’ direction. “In my own thinking I had been kind of headed in that direction as well,” Gates said. “But one of the keys is how long is that period (of pause and evaluation) and then what happens after that.”
Although Petraeus and other senior commanders in Iraq had been suggesting the possibility of a pause in the drawdown, the idea runs counter to those in the military — particularly in the Army and Marine Corps — who worry that strains on troops from long and multiple combat tours will grow worse unless the drawdown continues after July.
On Sunday, Gates said Iraq’s political leaders face hard choices on how to stabilize the country despite promising new signs of progress toward reconciliation. “They seem to have become energized over the last few weeks,” Gates said. The Pentagon chief told reporters who traveled with him from a conference in Germany that he wants to “see what the prospects are for further success in the next couple of months.”
The question is whether conditions in Baghdad and elsewhere have improved enough to permit even more troop cuts without risking a deterioration in security. Petraeus’ strategy is based on an expectation that improved security over time will give Iraqi political leaders an impetus to make compromises on legislation and other moves toward reconciliation.
Most observers seem to agree that the Surge has been a primary factor in improving the security situation in Iraq. Still, the theory behind adding more troops was that it would give Iraq’s civilian leaders some “breathing room” to resolve political differences. There’s not much progress on that front.
The Surge was always intended to be very short-lived, simply because our military leaders believe we can’t sustain the OPSTEMPO. While cries of “broken Army” have always struck me as hyperbolic, there’s not much question that fighting two wars over such a sustained period has put considerable strain on the force — especially since most of the burden falls on the fraction of those in uniform with the right skill sets. Given that little or nothing has been done to change the underlying force structure, it’s not clear to me that we can simply sustain these troop levels indefinitely.