New York Times
November 28, 2005
WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 - In public, President Bush has firmly dismissed the mounting calls to set a deadline to begin a withdrawal from Iraq, declaring eight days ago that there was only one test for when the time is right. "When our commanders on the ground tell me that Iraqi forces can defend their freedom," he told American forces at Osan Air Base in South Korea, "our troops will come home with the honor they have earned."
But in private conversations, American officials are beginning to acknowledge that a judgment about when withdrawals can begin is driven by two political calendars - one in Iraq and one here - as much as by those military assessments. The final decision, they said, could well hinge on whether the new Iraqi government, scheduled to be elected in less than three weeks, issues its own call for an American withdrawal. Last week, for the first time, Iraq's political factions, represented by about 100 Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, collectively called for a timetable for withdrawal.
As Mr. Bush ends his Thanksgiving holiday in Texas on Monday, both his own aides and American commanders say, he will begin confronting these sometimes conflicting military and political issues, including the midterm Congressional elections in this country, part of a delicate balancing action about how and when to begin extracting American troops from Iraq.
Mr. Bush is scheduled to give a speech in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday assessing progress both in Iraq and in what he calls the broader war on terrorism, and several officials said he was expected to contend that the Iraqi forces have made great progress. But as it has been for the past two and a half years, it is unclear exactly what measuring sticks he is using, and whether they present the full picture.
White House aides insist that Mr. Bush is as determined as he sounds not to withdraw troops prematurely. They say he will begin examining the timing of a draw-down after he sees the outcome of the Dec. 15 election in Iraq.
But it is also clear that Mr. Bush is under new pressure to begin showing that troop reductions are under way before the midterm Congressional elections next year.
Suddenly a White House that was seemingly impervious to open questioning of its strategy feels the need to respond to criticisms - and to do so quickly. This weekend, The Washington Post published an op-ed article in which Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, called for a three-step process in Iraq to create a political settlement, deliver basic services and accelerate the training of troops. The White House responded immediately with a long press release, in a series called "Setting the Record Straight," suggesting that Mr. Biden had endorsed Mr. Bush's strategy - which is certainly not how Mr. Biden saw it.
Current and former White House officials acknowledge that they were surprised at how quickly calls for deadlines for the draw-down of troops, which mounted as Mr. Bush was away in Asia, had changed the tenor of the debate. They pointed out that the statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after Mr. Bush's return from Asia that Iraqi forces would be able to defend the country "fairly soon" appeared to presage a new tone.
"We've moved from 'if' to 'how fast,' " said one former aide with close ties to the National Security Council. He said officials in the Bush White House were already actively reviewing possible plans under which 40,000 to 50,000 troops or more could be recalled next year if "a plausible case could be made" that a significant number of Iraqi battalions could hold their own.
That effort may be aided by the fact that troop numbers in Iraq have climbed back to 160,000 in advance of the December vote. Senior Pentagon civilians and military officials are already discussing a move soon after the election to return to 138,000 troops, the status quo over much of the past year. But after that point, the American military expects to face two competing sets of pressures.
On one hand, senior officers are painfully aware that sustaining the current high level of troop deployments in Iraq risks undermining morale of those now in uniform - and already has poisoned the efforts of Army recruiters seeking to woo young Americans into military service.
At the same time, senior officers hear the bruising debate over Iraq policy back in Washington and have taken to counseling "strategic patience," arguing that 2006 will be a critical year in which a new government in Baghdad and local security forces should be able to take more of a lead in stabilizing their nation.
Officers fear that a hasty retreat driven by American domestic politics - and not conditions on the ground in Iraq - could invite greater violence or even civil war and that the American military would carry the blame for losing Iraq.
Senior Pentagon civilians and officers say the military is following standard practice and has drafted a number of plans with a range of options for Iraq.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warned that a hasty withdrawal before Iraqi security forces are given a chance during 2006 to "achieve enough critical mass" and stand more on their own "will end in snatching defeat from the jaws of uncertainty." The top American commander in the Middle East has, since at least July, outlined a plan that would gradually reduce American forces in Iraq toward 100,000 by next spring, Pentagon and military officials said.
The commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, has not discussed that plan in public - and also has carefully avoided comment on the vitriolic debate that erupted between the White House and Congress. While the focus of the options that the Pentagon is drafting has been on dropping below 100,000 troops by the end of next year, contingency plans also deal with a possible demand by the new Iraqi government for a speedier American withdrawal and, at the other extreme, for requests to sustain troop levels, or even for another temporary increase, should Iraq risk falling into increased violence and anarchy.
Senior commanders see no short-term change in American military capacity on the ground in Iraq with the anticipated return to 138,000 troops after the election. Fresh assessments on altering the troop numbers - and the mix of capacities, from infantry to training units to civil affairs - are anticipated not long after the vote.
"Recommendations will be made here based on conditions on the ground," said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq. "Those conditions are the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the capability of the government to support those forces in the field, the state of the insurgency, and a whole range of conditions."
General Vines also acknowledged the political realities influencing troop reductions, saying, "The ultimate decision, of course, will be made as a policy level decision in Washington and other capitals."
The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, on Sunday advocated setting a deadline for withdrawing American forces from Iraq, saying such a firm statement would force political compromise within the emerging leadership in Baghdad.
An open-ended American commitment "takes pressure off them to make the compromises that are necessary to make those changes in the Constitution," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "That's what we need to do. Put some pressure on them to make the political decisions that are so essential to becoming a nation."
On the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, argued against setting a timetable, but did urge President Bush to speak more often and directly to the American people about the mission.
"It would bring him closer to the people, dispel some of this concern that understandably our people have about the loss of life and limb, the enormous cost of this war to the American public, and we've got to stay firm for the next six months," Senator Warner said. "It is a critical period."