By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 11, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he is confident there will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq in 2009, but added that the drawdown process has gone somewhat more slowly than he thought it would last year. This comes as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus returns to Iraq after a week of testimony and meetings in and around the nation's capital to begin what Gates called a "major force realignment" there. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen met with journalists at the Pentagon today.
All five surge brigades are expected to be out of Iraq by the end of July, leaving 15 combat brigades in the country.
By the time the surge drawdown is finished by the end of July, the United States will have rearranged its forces in Iraq, redrawn its battle lines, reduced its presence in some areas and shifted more responsibility to the Iraqi security forces, Gates said. Petraeus then will assess the results of the changes before any other troop reductions are planned.
"The only prudent course of action is to pause the drawdowns for a period of time ... to assess what impact, if any, all this will have had," Gates said. Petraeus asked for 45 days, but President Bush yesterday guaranteed the general "all the time he needs."
Petraeus then will recommend whether to hold troop levels steady or recommend further drawdowns, Gates said. But, beyond Petraeus' evaluation, other officials will continue to evaluate troop levels there, Gates said.
"I certainly hope ... that conditions will allow us to remove more troops by year's end," the secretary said.
But only time will tell, he acknowledged.
"We are all realistic. The history of this conflict has demonstrated that we must always be prepared for the unpredictable, and that we must be extremely cautious with our every step," Gates said. "We cannot get the end game wrong."
Gates testified before Congress yesterday that he no longer thinks the United States will be able to get down to 10 combat brigades in Iraq by the end of this year.
"I think that the process has gone a little slower," he said today.
The secretary said he came to that conclusion during his February visit to Baghdad, in which Petraeus detailed his planned adjustments. It was then that the general asked for a brief period of consolidation and evaluation after the five surge brigades redeployed, Gates said.
A 45-day pause in troop reductions would yield a mid-September decision point on further troop-level adjustments, Gates noted. "And at that point, it seems to me that trying to withdraw five brigade combat teams [to get down to 10 before the end of this year] would be a real challenge," he said. Petraeus has persuaded him that "probably would be too quick," the secretary added.
As he and other officials have said all along, Gates noted, troop-level decisions depend on what happens in Iraq.
"I think we're going to have to wait and see whether the Iraqi security forces will have been able to take on new responsibilities, whether their new battalions are in the fight, [and] whether the political process has continued," Gates said. "I think it really is based on the situation on the ground, and I think we'll just have to take it a step at a time."
Still, Gates expressed confidence that there will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq next year.
"I am confident that we will have a lower number of troops in 2009. Again, I am not saying when in 2009, but I believe we will have a lower number troops in Iraq in 2009," the secretary said.
Prime factors in considering further troop reductions are Iraqi provincial elections planned for this fall and whether Petraeus needs the troops there for election-related security.
"The role of democracy in Iraq remains an important part of our goal, and frankly, I think that there has been significant progress in that regard," Gates said.
The Iraqi government has passed a provincial powers law, planned for provincial elections this fall and national elections next year, and there has been greater interaction among the councils, Gates said.
"This looks to me, particularly for a country that has never experienced this kind of governance before, as significant progress. So I think it remains not just a goal, but one that is quite viable," he said.
When asked about the president's commitment for more troops in Afghanistan in 2009, Gates said he believes it's important that the United States commit to staying in the fight there.
Mullen noted that further troop reductions in Iraq will free up the force to provide more soldiers in Afghanistan. Should the Army not be able to further reduce its presence in Iraq, that could put a crunch on "dwell time" at home stations for troops returning from deployment, he acknowledged.
"The available forces in Iraq, should drawdowns continue, are the ones that offer potential to put more troops in Afghanistan and to build dwell time back here," Mullen said. He said the United States has the forces to remain at post-surge levels in Iraq for "a significant period of time" if necessary. "[But] we would be unable to fill the requirements in Afghanistan," he said.
U.S. Marines will fill a NATO requirement for up to 3,500 additional troops in Afghanistan through November. After that, there are no plans to send more U.S. troops yet, Mullen said.
The NATO International Security Assistance Force commander has asked for up to three more combat brigades -- as many as 15,000 troops -- for the mission there. During the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, last week, some NATO allies signaled they would send more forces. Still, officials did not get the kind of commitments they were expecting, Gates said.
Asked if Iran is playing a greater role in training and directing "special group" militias in Iraq, Gates replied that he doesn't know if there has been an increase or whether "stirring the situation up has exposed more of what had been there, but was not evident."
"I think that there is some sense of an increased level of a supply of weapons in support to these groups," he said. "But whether it's a dramatic increase, ... I just don't know."
Gates and Mullen both were asked if Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose forces clashed with Iraqi forces recently, was considered an enemy of the United States. Both leaders said that as long as Sadr cooperates with the elected government of Iraq, he is not considered an enemy. Given Sadr's powerful influence in Iraq, both said they would prefer to work with him.
"Certainly the ceasefire he asked for many months ago ... has had a positive effect, and he seems certainly to have a following that has followed that and significantly impacted on the reduction of violence," Mullen said. "But he clearly can have the opposite impact, as well.
"Sadr clearly is a very important and key player in all this. Exactly where he's headed and what impact he'll have long term ... is out there still to be determined," the admiral said.
Gates said anyone who is prepared to work within the political process in Iraq peacefully is not an enemy of the United States.
"We want him to work within the political process in Iraq. He has a large following, and I think that it's important that he become a part of the process," Gates said.
Gates also fielded questions about the Defense Department's supplemental funds yet to be approved by Congress. The secretary said officials still are crunching the numbers on what the fiscal 2009 supplemental request will be. It should be ready to present to Congress within weeks, he said. Meanwhile, the department is waiting "patiently" for the remaining $102 billion in supplemental funds for fiscal 2008, he added.
"The fact is, we begin to run out of money to pay the Army in June," Gates said. "It would interrupt contracts at the depots for repairing equipment. The implications are significant, and even the delay has consequences for [base realignment and closure] and for family housing, for procurement. ... We really, really need that supplemental as quickly as possible."