Military to Slow Iraq Return?

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The Pentagon is busy pulling out the five combat brigades that "surged" to Iraq last year and helped quell the violence. But many Americans want that withdrawal to continue beyond the 30,000 troops added for the surge. Not so fast, says General David Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Iraq, urging a pause to evaluate the impact of the removal of those five brigades before sending more troops home. This weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed Petraeus, meaning that when the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq drops from the current 158,000 to about 130,000 in July, it could remain at that level into the fall. "A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Gates said Monday as he toured a U.S. post in southern Baghdad.

The pause, which could last up to several months, would be designed to ensure that the smaller U.S. footprint in Iraq doesn't embolden insurgents to reignite the civil war that ripped the country apart in 2006 and the first half of 2007. The U.S. military is counting on the growing Iraqi security forces to fill the gap left by the U.S. withdrawal, but wants to test that hypothesis by removing its own forces in increments.

Back in the Army's manpower shop, officers are doing everything they can to cut the length of overseas deployments. For the past year, soldiers have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan for 15-months tours, with only 12 months of "dwell time" at home between deployments (the Army's traditional deployment ratio has been one year deployed, two years at home). Families have been complaining about the 15-month tours, and it's a key topic of conversation whenever Army leaders meet with soldiers and their spouses.

But Army officials have made it clear they believe they can trim the 15-month deployments back to 12 months even if the troop level in Iraq remains at 130,000 for a period of time. That will give Petraeus and the Bush Administration, which wants to avoid any action that could jeopardize the past year's gains in Iraq, leverage to suspend the pullout for a time. Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former Army officer, asked Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, at a hearing last week if doing that wouldn't break the Army. "The real opportunity to reduce the tours to 12 months would be seriously compromised if, in fact, we commit to 15 brigades indefinitely," Reed said. Not so fast, Mullen countered: "We think it's actually doable." The growth in the Army and unspecified "assumptions" may make it possible to cut the 15-month deployments down to 12 months even if the U.S. pullout stalls at 130,000 troops for awhile, he said.

Army officials say that so long as the mini-surge in Afghanistan is limited to the recently announced boost of 3,200 Marines, the Army should be able to begin trimming the length of deployments starting in August. While some units currently deployed are expected to have to serve up to 15 months, the Army is hoping that any brigades sent overseas after August 1 will have their deployments capped at 12 months.