PRESIDENT CONFRONTS DISSENT ON TROOP LEVELS
By Peter Baker
December 21, 2006
The debate over sending more U.S. troops to Iraq intensified yesterday as President Bush signaled that he will listen but not necessarily defer to balky military officers, while Gen. John P. Abizaid, his top Middle East commander and a leading skeptic of a so-called surge, announced his retirement.
At an end-of-the-year news conference, Bush said he agrees with generals "that there's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished" before he decides to dispatch an additional 15,000 to 30,000 troops to the war zone. But he declined to repeat his usual formulation that he will heed his commanders on the ground when it comes to troop levels.
Bush sought to use the 52-minute session, held in the ornate Indian Treaty Room in a building adjacent to the White House, to sum up what he called "a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people" and reassure the American public that "we enter this new year clear-eyed about the challenges in Iraq." Asked about his comment to the Washington Post this week that the United States is neither winning nor losing the war, Bush pivoted forward. "Victory in Iraq is achievable," he said.
The tension between the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the proposed troop increase has come to dominate the administration's post-election search for a new strategy in Iraq. The uniformed leadership has opposed sending additional forces without a clear mission, seeing the idea as ill-formed and driven by a desire in the White House to do something different even without a defined purpose.
Abizaid's announcement amid that debate could shift the dynamics. His retirement in March had been expected, given that he has led the U.S. Central Command longer than any predecessor and had already extended his assignment at the request of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. But Abizaid has been a forceful voice of doubt about the utility of a surge, and his imminent departure could make it easier for the White House to shift direction.
During a news conference in Baghdad alongside newly installed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Abizaid declined to discuss troop levels except to say "all options are on the table," and he characterized his retirement as appropriate. "No decision that anybody makes in a position like this is ever totally their decision," he said, "but I think the time is right, and it has nothing to do with dissatisfaction."
The internal struggle over troop levels in Iraq has exposed a schism between civilian and military leadership 45 months into a war that, at the moment, has no end in sight. Testifying before a Senate committee Nov. 15, Abizaid bluntly rejected the surge option, saying: "I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem. I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are." Other generals have been equally resistant in public and private comments.
Bush has traditionally paid public deference to the generals, saying any decisions on moving U.S. forces in the region would depend on their views. At a Chicago news conference in July, for instance, Bush said he would yield to Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Iraq commander.
"General Casey will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there," Bush said, adding: "He'll decide how best to achieve victory and the troop levels necessary to do so. I've spent a lot of time talking to him about troop levels. And I've told him this: I said, 'You decide, General.'"
By yesterday, however, Bush indicated that he will not necessarily let military leaders decide, ducking a question about whether he would overrule them. "The opinion of my commanders is very important," he said. "They are bright, capable, smart people whose opinion matters to me a lot." He added: "I agree with them that there's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before I agree on that strategy."
A senior aide said later that Bush would not let the military decide the matter. "He's never left the decision to commanders," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so Bush's comments would be the only ones on the record. "He is the commander in chief. But he has said he will listen to those commanders when making these decisions. That hasn't changed."
As he consults with the Joint Chiefs on troop levels in Iraq, Bush has tried to address their broader concern about the overstretched armed forces. He told the Post on Tuesday that he plans to expand the size of the Army and Marines and repeated that intention yesterday while denying that his decision amounted to a repudiation of Rumsfeld's efforts to build a lighter, more agile military.
On his first tour of Iraq yesterday, Gates said "we're just beginning that process" of figuring out how much to expand ground forces overall. But he cautioned that the long-term project was not related to the immediate question of what to do in Iraq. "An increase in the size of the Army today really won't show up for some period of time," Gates said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), wrapping up his own visit to Iraq, said a surge might be helpful in Anbar, the western province that has been a haven for al-Qaeda. "But in Baghdad," he told reporters from Kuwait, "it's not going to help unless the Iraqis decide that they're going to get their act together and stop sectarian violence."
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush's latest remarks indicate that he has not come to grips with the need for urgent change in Iraq. "The president seems lost within his own rhetoric," Reid said in a statement. "He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war."
Bush argued that failure in Iraq would be an even worse result and expressed confidence that many Americans "understand the consequences of retreat." As he prepared to begin his holiday break at Camp David and his ranch in Crawford, Tex., he ruminated in response to questions on the difficulty of wartime leadership but said he harbors no doubts about his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. "The most painful aspect of the presidency," he said, "is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives."
An antiwar group reacted angrily to the comments.
"I know that my son's life was wasted, thrown away like it was nothing," Michelle Deford, whose son, Army Sgt. David Johnson, was killed in Iraq in 2004, said in a statement released by Gold Star Families Speak Out. "What we need to do is bring the rest of our sons and daughters home now."
--Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report from Baghdad.
BUSH WARNS OF MORE U.S. LOSSES IN IRAQ
By Terence Hunt
December 20, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Acknowledging deepening frustration over Iraq, President Bush said Wednesday he is considering an increase in American forces and warned that next year will bring more painful U.S. losses. New Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Baghdad that a troop surge was an obvious option.
Bush was unusually candid at a year-end news conference about U.S. setbacks and dashed hopes in the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,950 U.S. military members.
He said "2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people. We began the year with optimism" but that faded as extremists fomented sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
"And over the course of the year they had success," the president acknowledged. "Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country, it set back reconciliation, it kept Iraq's unity government and our coalition from establishing security and stability throughout the country."
Democrats are about to claim control of Congress and Americans are overwhelmingly unhappy about Bush's handling of the war, so the president is at a turning point as he searches for new approaches. Administration officials said Bush's remarks were intended to brace a war-weary nation for another tough year in Iraq.
The heavy cost of the war also came into focus as the Pentagon circulated a request for an additional $99.7 billion to pay for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. If embraced by Bush and approved by Congress, the proposal would boost this year's budget for those wars to about $170 billion.
So far, four years of war in Iraq have cost about $350 billion.
On just his third day as secretary, Gates made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to review options with senior American commanders. He said no decisions have been made.
"We discussed the obvious things," Gates told reporters. "We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish."
Gates said he was only beginning to determine how to reshape U.S. war policy. He also said he would confer with top Iraqi officials about what America's role should be in Iraq. Bush is awaiting Gates' recommendations before making a speech in January announcing changes in strategy and tactics.
The shift in policy is likely to be accompanied by a shuffle of top American generals in Iraq. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to go ahead with a retirement that is months overdue. And the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has indicated he may not stay much longer than the end of this year.
Abizaid and Casey have opposed sending more troops to Iraq, and their departures could make it easier for Bush to send more soldiers to the war. One option calls for sending five or more additional combat brigades -- roughly 20,000 or more troops.
Apart from any increase in Iraq, Bush said the military's overall size should be increased to relieve the heavy strain on U.S. troops, reversing the previous position of his administration during Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon tenure. Bush also said a troop surge in Iraq would have to be for a specific mission.
His remarks appeared intended to address doubts voiced by prominent military officials who worry that sending more troops to Iraq would be ineffective and put more demands on an already-stretched U.S. military.
"There's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before, you know, I agree on that strategy," the president said.
The administration says many questions have to be answered about sending in more troops: What would be their purpose, what would they do, how long would they stay and what is the Iraqi government's view on the rules of engagement for more U.S. forces? Also, would the additional troops serve in training positions, in combat, to help civilian forces or for a combination of those roles?
"I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices because the enemy is merciless and violent," the president said.
Bush was unwavering about U.S. goals for Iraq.
"Victory in Iraq is achievable," he said. "It hadn't happened nearly as quickly as I hoped it would have. . . .
"But I also don't believe most Americans want us just to get out now," the president said. "A lot of Americans understand the consequences of defeat. Retreat would embolden radicals. It would hurt the credibility of the United States."
Bush stepped back from his confident assertion two months ago that "absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq. Wednesday, he said, "We're not winning. We're not losing."
The president said he changed his formulation because "we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted . . . and that the conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad."
He said his original remark, on Oct. 25, was made in the spirit that "I believe that we're going to win. I believe that -- and, by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there."
IRAQ WAR: ‘A DIFFICULT YEAR’
December 21, 2006
The Decider has figured out that 2006 was "a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people." President Bush said Wednesday, "We began the year with optimism after watching nearly 12 million Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a unity government and a free future." The president blames the difficult year on "enemies of liberty" and their strategy of fomenting sectarian violence.
"We enter this new year clear-eyed about the challenges in Iraq and equally clear about our purpose. Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and is an ally in this war on terror," he said.
It's remarkable. After months of proclaiming the cusp of victory, the president tells the Washington Post: "We're not winning, we're not losing."
Then at his news conference Wednesday, the president clarified that statement. "My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted, when I said it at the time, and that the conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad."
Success isn't coming fast enough? Whoa. This is clear-eyed? Sure, the president says he will review policy options, but he is only exploring alternatives that cater to his notion that it's possible to win militarily in Iraq. One of the reasons the administration stubbornly has refused to call Iraq a civil war is because history suggests an outside power cannot decide the outcome.
A victory that is achievable will not come from increasing the U.S. military presence, but that move will boost the risk of a significant battlefield defeat. A real policy shift ought to redouble efforts toward diplomatic and political solutions.
A clear-eyed course correction in 2007? We don't see it yet. So far, the president is changing tactics, not strategy. The result, unfortunately, means an even more difficult year ahead.