In his final State of the Union address, President Bush will contend that the withdrawal of an additional four combat brigades from Iraq—about 25,000 troops— by mid-summer represents his “return on success.” In reality, these 25,000 troops are being withdrawn out of necessity.
The president will claim these troops are being withdrawn as a reward for temporary security progress in Iraq. But an overwhelming number of U.S. military leaders recognize that after nearly five years of war in Iraq and over six in Afghanistan, the United States is unable to sustain current troop levels in Iraq due to the strain it has placed on our ground forces.
In recent congressional testimony, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey warned that “the current demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply,” and earlier this month he noted that, “the surge has sucked all the flexibility out of the system.” Casey, who is responsible for the overall health of the Army, is unequivocal in his assessment that “the Army is out of balance,” which is a polite way of saying it’s near the breaking point.
General Casey is not the only military leader who is concerned. Before leaving his post as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace advised the president to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by almost half. Late last year, General Pace warned the president that keeping an excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 will severely strain the military.
Then there’s Admiral Michael Mullen, General Pace’s successor, who stated recently that in its three decade-long history the all-volunteer force has never been asked to do so much over so long a period of time. Commenting on the ability of the Army to endure the current strain placed on quality, retention, and family support, Mullen recently stated that today’s tempo is not “sustainable in the long-term.”
Over 130,000 troops have been deployed to Iraq for nearly five years, and another 25,000 have been deployed to Afghanistan for the last six. Many of these combat units are in their third and fourth tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. While President Bush may claim that the four additional combat brigades being withdrawn from Iraq are a reward for success, in reality, their redeployment is an obligatory step in restoring military readiness.
In short, the president is trying to make a virtue out of necessity. Despite the best efforts of the brave men and women of our military, there has been scant political progress by the Iraqi government during the now year-long surge. If history is any guide, an indefinite U.S. military presence in the region will not inspire Iraq’s fractious leaders to make the difficult compromises necessary for political reconciliation.
Only by implementing a strategic reset in Iraq—withdrawing all of our forces from Iraq’s multiple civil wars—will the United States be able to take control of its own national security interests in Iraq and the greater Middle East.
For the Center for American Progress’ policies on this topic, please see:
- Strategic Reset: Reclaiming Control of U.S. Security in the Middle East
- How to Redploy: Implementing a Responsible Drawdown of U.S. Forces from Iraq