Bush Makes Mountains Out of Molehills

Bush’s speech hides the reality of still high troop levels and a deteriorating situation in Iraq, write Lawrence J. Korb and Sean Duggan.

President Bush greets military personnel after delivering remarks to the National Defense University's Distinguished Lecture Program today. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Bush greets military personnel after delivering remarks to the National Defense University's Distinguished Lecture Program today. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President George W. Bush today announced that he would be withdrawing nearly 8,000 troops from Iraq, including one Marine unit, one Army combat brigade, and additional support personnel. However, this withdrawal will not be accomplished for another five months, or until February 2009, one month after he leaves office. The president went on to say that he would send one Marine battalion and one combat brigade—a total of 4,500 troops—to Afghanistan, but not until January 2009.

What the president didn’t acknowledge is that in effect he will be maintaining the current level of troops in Iraq until the end of his presidency, and that he will not send a significant amount of troops to Afghanistan—the true central front in the war on terror.

In fact, President Bush’s announcement does not represent a drawdown at all. By maintaining the current level of troops in Iraq until the end of 2008—currently around 146,000—President Bush is actually keeping nearly 14,000 more troops in the country than were there when he announced a troop escalation, or "the surge," in January 2007. Even with the withdrawal of 8,000 troops early next year, February’s troop levels will still exceed those of early 2007.

President Bush waxed eloquently about the departure of one Marine battalion—approximately 1,000 troops—from Anbar Province this coming November. Yet this unit was already scheduled to leave the province in November, and its departure results more from cooperation between American forces and Sunni tribes, the so-called "Awakening," than the influx of 4,000 American troops into the province nearly a year and a half ago.

Even when Bush’s modest troop reduction in Iraq takes place five months from now, it will not relieve the stress on our ground forces and is not as significant as the Pentagon’s military leaders had hoped it would be. Despite the president’s assertion that he based his February 2009 reductions on recommendations made by the joint chiefs of staff, we know that this is not the case. Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted several times that withdrawing troops more quickly from Iraq represents a small risk compared to the gains that could be made by shifting more troops to Afghanistan. In calling for these delayed and very modest troop reductions, the president is actually ignoring the advice of his senior military advisors, just as he did when decided to surge 30,000 more troops to Iraq in the first half of 2007.

President Bush also announced that the Pentagon would be reducing combat tours from a record length of 15 months to 12 months, attributing this reduction to a “return on success” of the surge. Yet this modest reduction merely returns the length of combat tours to their previous 12-month duration and still forces the Defense Department to violate its own deployment policy. U.S. Department of Defense policy calls for a 1-to-2 ratio of deployment to “dwell time”—time at home to rest, reset, reconnect with family, integrate new unit members, train, and prepare to deploy again for combat. This time is critically important to maintaining the mental and physical well-being of our troops and the high levels of manpower and equipment readiness in our armed forces. Even with these reductions, DoD will maintain only a 1-to-1 deployment to dwell time ratio, which is well short of DoD’s standards and will continue to cause stress and strain on the troops and their families.

Admiral Mullen and the other joint chiefs responsible for the overall health of the armed forces are rightfully concerned that these modest reductions will in no way relieve the stress placed on the ground forces over the last seven years. Of the Army’s 44 combat brigades, all but the First Brigade of the Second Infantry Division, which is permanently based in South Korea, have served at least one tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. Of the remaining 43 brigades, 13 of them have served two tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, 15 have served three tours, and 5 brigades have served four tours in either theatre.

Withdrawing one combat brigade from Iraq next February will give little relief to the troops, since it will be immediately offset by the one additional brigade that will be deployed to Afghanistan in January—thus providing no immediate or long-term respite for our ground forces.

Despite President Bush’s assertion that a troop increase in Afghanistan represents a “quiet surge,” these additions amount to little more than a trickle. Commanders in Afghanistan, such as General David McKiernan, the American commander of NATO-led forces, have long requested as many as three combat brigades—over 10,000 troops. The addition of 4,500 troops in a country that is 15 percent more populous and one-third larger than Iraq, while welcome, is insufficient to stop the deteriorating security situation in that country.

Perhaps most disingenuous was President Bush’s claim that modest troop increases over the last year have “made a difference” in Afghanistan. Perhaps the difference he was referring to was the fact that the Karzai government now controls only one-third of the country, or the fact that 2008 has seen a significant increase in violent attacks since 2007, or that 2008 is on pace to be the deadliest year for American and coalition deaths since 2001.

Despite recent security gains in Iraq, the surge of over 30,000 troops in Iraq has failed to meet its strategic objective—meaningful national reconciliation. The war in Afghanistan meanwhile continues to drift. The time for tinkering at the margins is over; it is time to implement a strategic reset of U.S. military and diplomatic strategy in Iraq and around the region.

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