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General, spy report raise Iraq stakes

Times Staff Writers

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is expected to advise President Bush to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq next year by almost half, potentially creating a rift with top White House officials and other military commanders over the course of the war.

Administration and military officials say Marine Gen. Peter Pace is likely to convey concerns by the Joint Chiefs that keeping well in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 will severely strain the military. This assessment could collide with one being prepared by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, calling for the U.S. to maintain higher troop levels for 2008 and beyond.

Petraeus is expected to support a White House view that the absence of widespread political progress in Iraq requires several more months of the U.S. troop buildup before force levels are decreased to their pre-buildup numbers sometime next year.

Pace’s recommendations reflect the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who initially expressed private skepticism about the strategy ordered by Bush and directed by Petraeus, before publicly backing it.

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According to administration and military officials, the Joint Chiefs believe it is of crucial strategic importance to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Iraq in order to bolster the military’s ability to respond to other threats, a view that is shared by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Pace is expected to offer his advice privately instead of issuing a formal report. Still, the position of Pace and the Joint Chiefs could add weight to that of Bush administration critics, including Democratic presidential candidates, that the U.S. force should be reduced.

Those critics include Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who on Thursday called on Bush to begin withdrawing troops in September to pressure the Iraqi government to move toward political compromise.

Any discord among the top U.S. generals could be awkward for Bush, who professes to rely heavily on advice from military leaders. But there also is tremendous pressure for military officers to speak with one voice and defer to Petraeus and other field commanders. It remains possible that the Joint Chiefs may opt to weaken their stance before approaching Bush.

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According to a senior administration official, the Joint Chiefs in recent weeks have pressed concerns that the Iraq war has degraded the U.S. military’s ability to respond, if needed, to other threats, such as Iran.

The chiefs are pushing for a significant decrease in troop levels once the current buildup comes to an end -- perhaps to about half of the 20 combat brigades now in Iraq. Along with support units, that would lower the U.S. presence to fewer than 100,000 troops from the current 162,000.

But military leaders in Iraq, as well as senior officials in the White House, are pushing for troop levels to return to the prior level of about 15 brigades, or about 134,000 troops, once the current buildup is over.

Despite signs of progress in some locales, the Iraqi government has failed at national reconciliation, a new National Intelligence Estimate reported Thursday. White House policymakers argue that such weakness means they cannot dramatically reduce U.S. troop levels, at least through the end of the Bush presidency.

Bush has said publicly he hopes to move toward troop levels recommended by the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group, which had called for drastic reductions in combat power to focus on training and counter-terrorism missions. Such a shift would lead to a force of 20,000 to 50,000 soldiers. That now appears unlikely.

Planning within the White House has shifted in recent weeks to focus on how large a presence can be maintained in Iraq through the end of 2008.

“If it’s going to take time, and if we can’t afford to just walk away from this, then . . . we better get ourselves structured for the long haul,” said the senior administration official, explaining the White House position.

Administration and defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because neither the White House nor Pentagon has made any final decisions on Iraq policy.

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As the top American combat general, Petraeus wields wide authority and commands considerable attention in Washington. But U.S. law gives the Joint Chiefs responsibility to ensure the long-term well-being of the military and makes their chairman the president’s principal military advisor.

“Petraeus and [Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker are coming to testify, but this is the president’s decision,” said a senior military official in the Pentagon. “As the chairman, Gen. Pace, by law, has a big role in that and he will provide his advice to the president.”

Pace was not nominated by Bush for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and will leave the post at the end of September. He is being succeeded by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the current Navy chief, who has been even more vocal in his concerns about the stresses on the Army.

Although the role of Defense Department civilian leaders has been highly controversial since the start of the Iraq war, strains between ground commanders and the Pentagon’s military brass have been comparatively rare. Previous U.S. commanders in Iraq, such as Petraeus’ predecessor, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., emphasized low force levels, in part to ensure the overall health of the Army.

Pace has gained a reputation as a consensus builder who is loath to confront civilian leaders on war strategy. With his term nearly up, he is facing his last opportunity to affect the war effort and is stepping up the involvement of the Joint Chiefs in planning for Iraq.

Pace has assigned a handpicked group of high-ranking Iraq combat veterans, known as his “council of colonels,” to help formulate the Pentagon military leadership’s assessment of current strategy, according to military officials.

Pace created the council last year. Although the chiefs’ specific recommendations to Bush were pushed aside then in favor of the troop buildup ordered in January, Pace has asked the council to look at various military problems since then. The process has been credited with reinvigorating the relevance of the Joint Chiefs.

Membership on the council has shifted since last year, and Pentagon officials say Pace now has a fresh group, convened this summer, examining potential changes to Iraq strategy. Past council members have included Army Col. Peter R. Mansoor, who is now Petraeus’ executive officer in Baghdad. Officials would not identify the officers now on Pace’s panel.

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Senior military officers in Washington believe that by next year, the Iraqi military will be able to shoulder more of the burden now carried by U.S. forces, according to defense officials.

Before the 2006 Samarra mosque bombing touched off cycles of sectarian violence, military officials believed they were on the path to reducing U.S. forces in Iraq to 10 brigades. Officers in the Pentagon now believe advances in the Iraqi army mean that U.S. and coalition forces may be once again on that path.

“The 25-cent question is, ‘What is the size of the force?’ To say there will be a smaller force is not accurate. There will be a smaller coalition force, but not necessarily a smaller overall force,” said a senior military officer. “The Iraqi security forces are making progress.”

The Joint Chiefs have become increasingly vocal about the need to keep Army and Marine forces at home longer between deployments so the military can train for other challenges besides the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq.

“Today’s Army is out of balance,” Casey said last week in a speech at the National Press Club. “We’re consumed with meeting the current demands, and we’re unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as we would like for other contingencies.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

peter.spiegel@latimes.com


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