April Briefing Set on U.S. Troops in Iraq
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's becoming increasingly likely that at least 130,000 U.S. troops will still be in Iraq by the time a new president takes office next year. The Pentagon is withdrawing some troops between now and the middle of the summer, but further troop cuts will depend on what General David Petraeus has to say when he talks to lawmakers in April.
NPR's Guy Raz is following this story.
And, Guy, people were talking about getting down to about 100,000 troops by the end of 2008. Why is that not going to happen now?
GUY RAZ: Well, that's right. And back in the fall, Defense Secretary Robert Gates essentially said that he had hoped to see that kind of drawdown. He later backed away from any explicit number.
What he was saying at that time, was if the situations stabilized we could, essentially, reach a figure that translates roughly to about 100,000 if you include all of the support and logistics units. But that possibility is really becoming increasingly unlikely.
INSKEEP: What is it that Pentagon officials are thinking about now?
RAZ: You know, Steve, there are different views on this inside the Pentagon. The service chiefs, the heads of the Army and the Marines, they want to bring down the numbers further and faster than the commanders in the field want to.
That's, of course, because they have to contend with manpower issues, shortages, for example. The commanders in Iraq are basically onboard with the idea of withdrawing the so-called surge brigades over the next six months, so roughly about 20 to 25,000 troops.
But they're not entirely ready to say that more should come out after the summer. The president, at least publicly, is saying he's going to go with whatever General David Petraeus' advice will be, and he said just as much when he met with Petraeus a few weeks ago in Kuwait.
Let's take a listen.
GEORGE W: My attitude is if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed. See? I said to the general if it's - if you want to slow her down, fine, it's up to you.
INSKEEP: Okay. So the president says you don't have to take out extra troops. Let's say that Petraeus thinks that he can, that the situation has improved. Would that actually lead to a drawdown in troops?
RAZ: Well, that's a possibility, you know. And while there are certainly politicians in Washington who are describing the situation in Iraq as a success, you know, very few commanders in Iraq are prepared to go that far. They're far more cautious. And over the weekend, General Petraeus was asked about this issue, and he made it pretty clear that he's going to hold off on making any decisions on further reductions once this initial drawdown ends in July. He spoke on CNN on Sunday.
DAVID PETRAEUS: We will, though, need some time to let things settle a bit, if you will, after we complete the withdrawal of what will be over one quarter of our combat power, one quarter of what we had during the height of the surge.
INSKEEP: Okay. One quarter of their combat power. In other words, the combat brigades, the guys who are actually fighting, will be going away, he says, over the coming months. And then, they'll pause and see where things stand. Where will the overall number of troops be then at that point?
RAZ: Well, before the surge, they were roughly 125,000 troops in Iraq. Now, it's something about - something closer to about 160,000. Now once all the surge brigades come home this summer, the total number of troops in Iraq will hover closer to about 135,000 because, you know, about eight to 10,000 of those troops are part of what are called support units. These are essentially troops who don't normally conduct combat operations but who do logistics, administration, maintenance and other crucial tasks, and they will almost certainly stay behind.
So there's a very likely possibility that there will be more troops in Iraq in January 2009 than there were just before the surge.
INSKEEP: Guy, thanks very much.
RAZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Guy Raz.