The news that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is considering a pause in the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq is riling politicos and is also likely to set up a tense debate between U.S. commanders on the ground in Baghdad—who do not want to see recent security gains slip away—and Pentagon officials who are concerned about the strain of the war in Iraq on U.S. troops.
While the sharp decline in combat deaths has come as a welcome development for U.S. commanders on the ground in Baghdad, they remain anxious about the effect of the end of the troop surge on violence in the fragile country. The increase in U.S. troops from 130,000 to 160,000 in Iraq, which began last summer, must end in July. That's because the U.S. military cannot sustain the buildup without further extending the tours of troops from 15 to 18 months, a move that senior Pentagon officials have consistently rejected. The question has long been how quickly troops will be brought down to 130,000 from the current level of 157,000.
Gates's statement yesterday makes it clear that the pause will likely last for some months and become the operative word in Iraq—and it may become as overused as the now-familiar term surge. This will come as welcome news to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He has for weeks been calling for a "period of assessment" after July in order to get a better sense of the effect troop cuts would have on security in Iraq.
What is not clear is how long this period of assessment will last. Gates has declined to give details, but such a pause will no doubt be a lively topic of debate on Capitol Hill next month, when Petraeus is scheduled to testify before Congress on the topic of progress in Iraq. Petraeus said during much-publicized testimony last September that by March he would have a better sense of what troop reductions should be made beyond the summer surge drawdown.
In the meantime, officials at the Pentagon are likely to be wringing their hands over Gates's announcement. Army Chief of Staff George Casey has repeatedly emphasized the stress and strain of multiple and extended war deployments on the force and the impact such strains will have on recruiting and retaining soldiers and marines. What's more, 130,000 troops in Iraq remains far above the level that many military officials privately consider to be sustainable.
That point was emphasized by the presidential candidates yesterday, as discussion of the pause promptly set the stage for the framing of the Iraq campaign debate. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both rejected any notion of a pause.
"We cannot wage war without end in Iraq while ignoring mounting costs to our troops and their families," said Obama.
Clinton added that she was "disheartened" by Gates's remarks. "This means," she said, "that we will have as many troops in Iraq in the summer of 2008 as we had at the beginning of 2007."