The report by the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, opens the next chapter in the debate about when to bring the troops home
Top military officials have hinted that some U.S. troops may start coming home this winter. "We know we are going to start reducing sometime between January and June next year," says Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. That hinges, he says, on results of the surge, and the simple fact that "the surge is ending and they've [troops have] done their 15 months. But the point I'm trying to make is to make those recommendations now, it's not going to be accurate."
What is clear is that the military is stressed, but while the tasks ahead remain considerable, a smaller force level in Iraq would be far more sustainable. There remain, of course, some calls in Congress for an immediate withdrawal of all troops. Privately, some military officials estimate that the military could comfortably keep 10 brigades (which each number some 3,500 troops) in Iraq and three brigades in Afghanistan "indefinitely."
But if the administration "tries to keep a force as big as it can in Iraq, the next administration is going to have to dramatically shrink the force and you're damaging our long-term interests," says one senior military official. Exhausted captains and noncommissioned officers are worn out by the war and are leaving the military in numbers that concern senior Pentagon officials.
Not even the best military minds can predict whether America will in the end achieve what most closely resembles victory—a stable Iraq. "I am not a pessimist," says Petraeus's chief of staff, Col. Peter Mansoor. "But there is a long way to go, and no guarantee of success."
With Linda Robinson in Iraq