It's a Pentagon divided

Tension rises about when to bring troops home, exposing rifts over long-term Iraq war strategy.

March 20, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — By many important measures, the U.S. military has reason to feel better about Iraq. Violence has declined, casualties are down, the president is touting the current strategy and the public's anguish has ebbed.

But inside the Pentagon, turmoil over the war has increased. Top levels of the military leadership remain divided over war strategy and the pace of troop cuts. Tension has risen along with concern over the strain of unending cycles of deployments.

In one camp are the ground commanders, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, who have pushed to keep a large troop presence in Iraq, worried that withdrawing too quickly will allow violence to flare. In the other are the military service chiefs who fear that long tours and high troop levels will drive away mid-level service members, leaving the Army and Marine Corps hollowed out and weakened.

President Bush, in marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion Wednesday, said he would not approve any U.S. troop withdrawals that could jeopardize security gains already made there. Indeed, top leaders at the Pentagon emphasize that any withdrawals must be done with that in mind, and few are pushing for a complete pullout.

Still, there are sharp differences that carry broad implications for the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

In the short run, supporters of Petraeus would like to see about 140,000 troops, including 15 combat brigades, remain in Iraq through the end of the Bush administration.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their advisors favor a faster drawdown. Some are pushing for a reduction to 12 brigades or fewer by January 2009, which would amount to approximately 120,000 troops, depending on the configuration of forces.

The discord deepened with last week's announcement that Adm. William J. Fallon, who served as the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, would retire. Fallon was seen as a key ally of the Joint Chiefs and at odds with Bush because of his support for a speedier drawdown in Iraq.

"Fallon wanted to withdraw forces from Iraq much faster than Gen. Petraeus," said one former Defense official who remains involved in Iraq policy. "Fallon was in sync with what the Joint Chiefs' desires were. And that enhanced the Joint Chiefs' position, because Fallon was a real war fighter, like Petraeus."

The officer, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because neither the Joint Chiefs nor Petraeus have made their Iraq recommendations public.

Next month, Petraeus and other military leaders will present their advice for the next phase of the war. The U.S. troop buildup is scheduled to wind down by July. The upcoming recommendations will determine whether troop reductions continue, as the Joint Chiefs would prefer, or "pause," as Petraeus has advocated. If withdrawals are halted, military leaders must decide how long that pause should last.

In part, the disagreements between Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs -- and in particular their chairman, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen -- are a function of their differing responsibilities. Petraeus' main task is to win the war in Iraq. Mullen and the Joint Chiefs have the primary responsibility of ensuring the long-term strength of the military and preparing for contingencies.

But the differences are exacerbated by the circumstances under which the men were chosen for their jobs. Bush picked Petraeus because he had new strategies for Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tapped Mullen because of his deep concern for the health of the military.

Mullen, an experienced Pentagon hand, holds a key position in the debate as the nation's top uniformed officer. Of late, the Joint Chiefs chairman has rarely made a public speech without mentioning the need to reduce the strain on the Army.

Military officers note that the Joint Chiefs do not advocate pulling all troops out of Iraq. The Joint Chiefs agree with Petraeus on the importance of maintaining security gains. But Mullen thinks that the threat of violence in Baghdad must be weighed against the risk of damaging the Army through repeat deployments that lead mid-level personnel to quit.

"The chairman is wrestling very hard with the issues of sustaining success in Iraq versus recognizing the strain on the force," a military officer said. "There is a balance."

The Joint Chiefs continue to have doubts about the troop buildup strategy, some officers said, citing the disparity between security improvements in Iraq and the absence of any meaningful political progress by the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

"We injected positive things at the tactical level by putting 30,000 more troops on the ground," said an officer who has advised the Joint Chiefs. "But how does 30,000 more people make the Maliki government more competent and promote reconciliation between the factions?. . . We can have success on the ground, but it doesn't translate to success with the government."

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