- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Reduction in Iraq also considered

REUTERS NEWS AGENCY

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered a cut in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 16,000 from the current 19,000 by the spring, the Pentagon said yesterday.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters that the orders, signed by Mr. Rumsfeld on Monday, mean that most of the 4,000 troops from the Louisiana-based 4th Brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division will not be sent to Afghanistan early next year on rotation as previously scheduled.

The move came as the Pentagon also was considering when to begin reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq below a “baseline” level of 138,000 expected to be reached by early February. There are about 150,000 U.S. troops in the country in a force built up recently to help provide security for the parliamentary elections.

President Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld are under pressure from some members of Congress to quickly begin reducing the Iraq force amid waning public support for the U.S.-led operations in that country.

Mr. Rumsfeld gave the Afghan order on a recommendation from the senior U.S. commander there, Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, because Afghanistan’s own army and police forces are growing and NATO is increasing its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the country, Mr. Whitman said.

The New York Times, quoting a U.S. military official, reported Monday that 1,300 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division brigade would be sent to Afghanistan as scheduled, but that about 2,700 would remain in Louisiana on standby.

“The overall level of [Afghan and NATO] security forces in the country is growing,” Mr. Whitman said of the Pentagon plan not to replace returning members of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in southern Afghanistan.

The U.S. troop reduction has been anticipated since NATO agreed to assume control of an American command in southern Afghanistan next year. The Atlantic alliance is looking to raise the 9,000-strong ISAF peacekeeping mission to about 15,000 troops beginning early next year.

NATO plans to spread its bases in the north and west, and the capital, Kabul, to the more volatile south, a center for many insurgents.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have refused to set any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, where more than 2,100 American troops have died since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Army Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. and coalition foes in Iraq, told reporters last week that he is considering whether and when to make further cuts in the number of American forces in that country beyond the 138,000 level, which will be reached in late January or early February.

Defense officials told Reuters this month that the military had drawn up tentative plans to cancel the deployment of two Army brigades to Iraq in what could be the start of a reduction of U.S. forces there.

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