President Bush announced Tuesday that he will keep the U.S. force strength in Iraq largely intact until the next president takes over. Some defense officials say that suggests recent security gains could be temporary.
In his remarks, the president focused on the positive: “Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and the Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight,” he said.
Bush, however, announced that he'll order only 8,000 more combat troops to leave Iraq by February, the month after his presidency ends, reducing the number there to about 138,000.
A Marine battalion and an Army brigade combat team from the Army's 10th Mountain Division that had been scheduled to deploy to Iraq will go to Afghanistan instead, Bush said.
More than half of his speech was devoted to Afghanistan. He outlined what he called a “quiet surge” of additional U.S. forces there, bringing the U.S. presence to nearly 31,000, about a fifth the total in Iraq.
“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” the president said.
Bush offered a portrait of an Iraq on the rise: declining violence, improving governance, returning normalcy of life.
His military commanders say the security improvements are becoming more durable, yet are still fragile. That helps explain the cautious approach of keeping most U.S. forces on site, without resuming the monthly withdrawal of Army combat brigades of earlier this year.
Defense officials said despite the success of last year's troop surge, the president's decision to withdraw just 8,000 soldiers from Iraq – about 5 percent of the troops there – reflects a persistent concern among top commanders that the improvements in security could be temporary and that renewed violence could erupt.
Officials fear that Iran might reactivate the Shiite Muslim militias it has armed and trained and that the Sunni group al-Qaida in Iraq is trying to re-establish itself in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.
Retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine with Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, said that while the drawdown is small, the U.S. is winning – but withdrawing too soon could undermine that success.
“The security gains are real and tangible but fragile,” said Nagl, who visited Iraq last month. “If you declare victory too soon, whether in a province or the whole country, al-Qaida can come back. And it is a whole lot less work and a whole lot less blood spilled keeping them out once you have cleared an area than it is pulling out prematurely and then having to go back and clear them out again.”
Bush's plan appears to fall short of demands by the Iraqi government for a withdrawal timetable.
Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi defense ministry spokesman, said Tuesday that Iraq is “moving in the right direction” and because of that the administration is “obliged to reduce its forces in Iraq within an acceptable time frame that ends in complete withdrawal.”
The president is scheduled to meet in the Oval Office today with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
At the same time, the Iraqi government's inability to schedule provincial elections has raised concerns in other parts of the U.S. military leadership, defense officials told McClatchy Newspapers. The elections were supposed to be held next month; they could be postponed until summer.
Iraqi lawmakers returned from their summer recess Tuesday still gridlocked over the elections and with no new vote in sight.
Although Bush said that he plans to apply the lessons of the Iraq surge to Afghanistan, experts said the U.S. doesn't have enough troops to do that.
In Afghanistan, defense officials said, the president's decision would provide a net increase of about 1,500 U.S. troops, almost all of them helicopter crews, military police and logistics units attached to the Army brigade bound for Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's illicit narcotics trade. McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed.