WASHINGTON, (AP) – Top defense leaders are telling Congress the U.S. must be cautious as the Pentagon begins to cut troops in Iraq and focus more attention on the escalating fight in Afghanistan.
In testimony Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was to note the dramatic security gains in Iraq over the past year but say that uncertainty remains and further troop reductions must be done with balance and care, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
At the same time, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were looking ahead to a broader effort in Afghanistan to beat back a Taliban resurgence and build up the fragile Afghan central government.
Both were scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee about the latest proposal by President Bush to slowly reduce troop levels in Iraq and start shifting forces to Afghanistan.
Bush announced Tuesday that he will pull about 4,000 troops out of Iraq before the end of the year, and another 4,000 in January — reducing force levels there to roughly 138,000. The 8,000-troop drawdown represents just 5 percent of the 146,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.
The troop cuts are not as large or as swift as leading Democratic critics have demanded, and the 138,000 total is several thousand higher than the troop strength in January 2007, when the Bush-ordered buildup there began.
At the same time, Bush endorsed military officials’ recommendations to send one Marine battalion to Afghanistan in November to replace two that are scheduled to leave. And he is sending an Army brigade to Afghanistan in January, although one senior defense official suggested Tuesday that there may be an effort to get the brigade under way before the end of this year. That unit is the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., according to Pentagon officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision is not public yet.
In a preview of the push-back Gates and Mullen were expected to receive Wednesday, the House panel chairman called Bush’s plan a deferral until the next administration. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said “more significant troop reductions in Iraq are needed.”
According to a senior defense official, Mullen also was to press for other federal agencies to provide much needed additional civilian support in Afghanistan.
He was expected to say more nonmilitary personnel are needed for the provincial reconstruction teams. Defense leaders made similar arguments in the past for the teams in Iraq — urgently pressing for representatives from the Agriculture, Commerce and Justice departments to help with the reconstruction and economic rebuilding.
Those requests have often proved difficult to fill.
But Bush made it clear Tuesday that the U.S. must take greater steps to tamp down the escalating violence in Afghanistan.
“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” he said.
Bush was scheduled to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Wednesday to discuss legislative efforts in Baghdad, among other things.
In making his announcement at the National Defense University on Tuesday, Bush put what is likely his last stamp on military strategy in Iraq. By next January, he’ll be out of office and his successor will be making the wartime decisions.