- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009


President Obama faces split opinions within the military on whether to make the speedy withdrawal from Iraq he championed as a candidate.

The new president’s top generals in Baghdad are pressing for an elongated timetable. Some influential senior advisers inside the Pentagon are more amenable to a quicker pullout. Mr. Obama has yet to decide the matter.

His recent announcement that he is sending thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan implies a drawdown of at least two brigades from Iraq by summer. But that does not answer the question of whether Mr. Obama will stick to his stated goal of a 16-month pullout or opt for a slower, less risky approach.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Baghdad, favors a longer timetable for leaving Iraq. He sees 2009 as a pivotal year, with parliamentary elections set to be held in December; he doesn’t want to lose more than two of the 14 combat brigades that are now in Iraq before the end of the year. And he believes the U.S. military will need to remain engaged in Iraq, to some degree, for years to come.

Gen. Odierno’s boss at U.S. Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, leans toward Gen. Odierno’s view.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has steered clear of the debate over withdrawing from Iraq. But he sees his battlefield as an increasingly urgent priority, not just for additional combat troops but also for Iraq-focused surveillance aircraft and more civilian support.

There are now about 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, compared with 38,000 in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama has directed 17,000 more to head to Afghanistan, including Marines and soldiers who had been in line for Iraq duty.

At the Pentagon, a more mixed view prevails.

The uniformed service chiefs see Iraq as a strain on their troops and, more broadly, a drain on their resources. The Marines, in particular, are in the tough position of having a foothold in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a relatively small service, the Marines would prefer to concentrate more fully on Afghanistan, if only they could get out of Iraq.

Neither Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said publicly whether he supports a 16-month withdrawal timeline. But they have an obligation to consider the full spectrum of threats and potential threats to U.S. national security.

“There’s a very clear understanding of what is at stake here,” Adm. Mullen said Feb. 10.

“And it’s very natural for General Odierno to want to go slower and to hang onto capability as long as possible,” he added. “That’s not unusual. It’s very natural for General McKiernan to say, ‘I need more.’ And so that’s the tension. We don’t have an infinite pot (of resources and deployable forces). We have to make hard decisions about where to accept risk.”

In internal discussions, the emphasis appears to be on getting out responsibly rather than quickly, several officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.

Mr. Obama must weigh an array of hard-to-figure trade-offs in security and politics. And he must reconcile his conviction that the combat phase of U.S. involvement in Iraq must end with his commanders’ concern in Baghdad that hard-fought gains could be squandered.

It boils down to this: How much more effort is the Iraq war worth? What is the risk of leaving too soon?

Is the 16-month timetable too short, given the uncertain state of stability and political reconciliation in Iraq and the potential cost of seeing the country slide back into widespread sectarian war?

And is anything substantially beyond 16 months too long, given the call for still more troops in Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama himself has said the battle against terrorists is going in the wrong direction?

Mr. Obama is still considering his options, which officials say includes a less hurried, 23-month withdrawal. The deadline he inherited from the Bush administration is Dec. 31, 2011, the date set in a security agreement with Baghdad by which all U.S. troops, not just combat forces, must be gone.

One clue to some of the thinking inside the White House might lie with the views of Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones.

Gen. Jones co-chaired a study published in January 2008 on the way ahead in Afghanistan. The group endorsed the idea of providing more military support for Afghanistan, including resources that become available as combat forces are withdrawn from Iraq.

The president has an additional factor to weigh: the political cost of backing off the 16-month pullout timetable that was a prominent feature of his campaign. Although he has said he thinks 16 months is a reasonable timetable, he also has assured military leaders that he will consider their advice.

Notably absent, at least so far, is even a whiff of public pressure from fellow Democrats to stick to a 16-month timeline. That suggests Mr. Obama’s party might be satisfied so long as he makes early and clear steps in the direction of ending U.S. combat involvement in Iraq, even if on a somewhat longer timeline.

Mr. Obama campaigned for the White House on a promise that he would end the war and get U.S. commanders moving immediately on a transition to Iraqi control of their own security.

He said military experts believe combat troops can be pulled out safely at a rate of one to two brigades a month, meaning all 14 combat brigades there now could be gone within 16 months, which equates to mid-2010.

Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who was the executive officer for Gen. Petraeus when the general was in Baghdad overseeing the “surge” of U.S. forces in 2007-08, said he thinks it likely that Mr. Obama will pull at least four combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of this year. But he hopes the president does not insist on getting all 14 brigades out within 16 months.

“If the president orders it, the military can do it, but whether it’s advisable or not is a different story,” he said in a telephone interview. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it is, given the risk you would incur to potentially upsetting the political situation” inside Iraq.

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