- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

The United States could have fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade, the top Army officer said, even though a signed agreement requires all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by 2012.

Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, said Tuesday that his planning envisions combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade as part of a sustained U.S. commitment to fighting extremism and terrorism in the Middle East.

“Global trends are pushing in the wrong direction,” Gen. Casey said. “They fundamentally will change how the Army works.”

He spoke at an invitation-only briefing for a dozen journalists and policy analysts from Washington-based think tanks.

Gen. Casey’s calculations about force levels are related to his attempt to ease the brutal deployment calendar that he said would “bring the Army to its knees.”

Gen. Casey would not specify how combat units would be divided between Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the U.S. ground commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, is leading a study to determine how far U.S. forces could be cut back in Iraq and still be effective. Gen. Casey said his comments about the long war in Iraq were not meant to conflict with administration policies.

President Obama plans to bring U.S. combat forces home from Iraq in 2010, and the United States and Iraq have agreed that all U.S. forces would leave by 2012. Although several senior U.S. officials have suggested that Iraq could request an extension, the legal agreement the two countries signed last year would have to be amended for any significant U.S. presence to remain.

As recently as February, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates repeated U.S. commitment to the agreement worked out with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011,” Mr. Gates said during an address at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina. “We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honor that they have earned.”

The United States has about 139,000 troops in Iraq and 52,000 in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war as quickly as possible and refocusing U.S. resources on what he called the more important fight in Afghanistan.

Gen. Casey said several times that he wasn’t the person making policy, but the military was preparing to have a fighting force deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come. He said his planning envisions 10 combat brigades plus command and support forces committed to the two wars.

When asked whether the Army had any measurement for knowing how big it should be, Gen. Casey responded, “How about the reality scenario?”

The reality scenario, he said, must take into account that “we’re going to have 10 Army and Marine units deployed for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Gen. Casey stressed that the United States must be ready to take on sustained fights in the Middle East while meeting its other commitments.

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