WASHINGTON — Citing the demands of the war on terrorism as justification for cutting back on U.S. peacekeeping missions, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stepped up his campaign Wednesday to withdraw American troops from a multinational force that has been patrolling the Sinai Peninsula for two decades.
"I do not believe that we still need our forces in the Sinai. I just plain don't," Rumsfeld said. "And we're working carefully with our friends and allies in Israel and Egypt to see if there isn't some reasonable way that . . . we can modestly reduce some of those folks that are down there in the Sinai."
About 900 U.S. troops make up the bulk of an 11-nation peacekeeping force on the Sinai Peninsula. The force patrols and operates checkpoints and observation posts within the demilitarized zone that runs along the boundary between Egypt and Israel.
Rumsfeld made a similar proposal during a visit to Israel in April, dismaying Israelis and some Bush administration officials. The timing of his latest remarks, with Israeli-Arab relations at a particularly low ebb, prompted criticism.
A senior official at the National Security Council said the White House and the State Department had not been informed that Rumsfeld was going to make the remarks. And one former NSC official, Geoffrey Kemp, called the U.S. presence in the Sinai "terribly important."
"In the long run it's fair to ask, 'How much longer should we keep them in the Sinai?' But to bring it up now? It surprises me," said Kemp, now a senior fellow at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington. "It seems so obvious that a time of crisis in the Middle East is not the time to start withdrawing forces that play a very important symbolic role in keeping the peace between Egypt and Israel."
But Rumsfeld told reporters that the war on terrorism lends new urgency to cutting back on long-standing commitments in the Sinai, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere around the world.
"We don't plan to go in and spend a career or a lifetime or two generations in these places," Rumsfeld said. "We want to be helpful where we can. We can contribute to peace and stability. We are an important country in an important time in the world, and we ought to do that. But I do think we ought to do it with our eyes wide open, and we ought to do it in a measured way, and we ought not to do it excessively."
The call by Rumsfeld came as the Pentagon moved to step up the U.S. military presence in the Philippines to train, equip and advise troops from that country in their fight against Muslim guerrillas linked to Osama bin Laden.
About 250 U.S. troops have arrived in the Philippines since October to help that country's fight against the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Over the next few months, the number of troops deployed there will increase to 650, their mission being to accompany Philippine patrols on Basilan, a rugged island that is an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, a Defense Department official said.
A shipment of weapons from the U.S., including automatic rifles and grenade launchers, arrived in the Philippines in recent days, the defense official said. More weapons and equipment are on the way, he said.
The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas have been holding a U.S. couple and a Philippine nurse hostage on Basilan since last spring, adding to the Pentagon's resolve to go after the terrorist group.
The Pentagon has also been quietly creating a ring of military bases encircling Afghanistan and is working with intelligence agents in countries where the Al Qaeda network is believed to have footholds. In countries from Bulgaria to Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and beyond, more than 60,000 U.S. military personnel now live and work at the new bases, according to Pentagon officials.
Those new troop deployments, combined with the Pentagon's expanded role in patrolling U.S. skies and coastlines, have Rumsfeld and his top aides concerned that the military could find itself stretched too thin.
"It suggests to me, as an interested observer concerned about the men and women in the armed services, [that] . . . we ought not to impose excessively on them, such that the wear and tear on the force is excessive," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld has long advocated spending more on high-technology weapons and on the development of a national missile defense system, and less on deployment of troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, such as in the Balkans and Haiti. He has said such deployments dull America's fighting edge and force battle-ready troops into jobs they aren't trained for.
In December, Rumsfeld angered some North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers when he proposed cutting as many as 6,000 troops from a Bosnian peacekeeping mission he described as straining the U.S. ability to carry out the war on terrorism.