How Many U.S. Troops Needed In Iraq, Afghanistan?
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be heading in different directions. In Iraq, the military situation is improving. In Afghanistan, it's getting worse. Balancing the competing military and political needs is a tricky equation for Pentagon planners, and it brings into focus a key question: How many troops are needed to fight each war?
NPR has learned that top Pentagon officials are closing in on some answers, and joining us now is NPR's Tom Bowman. Good morning.
TOM BOWMAN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: What have you found out?
BOWMAN: Well, Renee, let's start with Iraq. Now that the so-called surge is over, there are now 15 Army combat brigades there and a large number of Marines, overall about 140,000 soldiers and Marines. And there's a sense now among Pentagon military chiefs and also American commanders in Iraq that they can reduce to 14 Army brigades.
There seems to be a consensus there. But they'll probably not bring another brigade home until after the elections. They're looking at January, 2009. So that means the next brigade scheduled to rotate into Iraq, the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, will not go to Iraq in November. And now it may head to Afghanistan, but maybe not until early next year. And at the same time, I'm hearing that they're planning to reduce 1,500 Marines in Anbar Province.
Now, that's a province that was among the most violent in Iraq, and now it's largely pacified and earlier this week was turned over to Iraqi government control. But for all this, there's been no final decision here, either with Defense Secretary Robert Gates or President Bush. He's not signed off on it.
MONTAGNE: Well Ken, the Pentagon quickly sent troops from the U.S. to Afghanistan instead of Iraq.
BOWMAN: Well, not easily. It takes time to move an Army brigade. First of all, there's a question of training for the Afghan mountains, let's say, rather than the Iraqi desert. Moving the equipment takes time. There are 4,000 soldiers in a brigade. It takes at least two months to get their equipment by sea over there. So it's possible that that 10th Mountain Brigade, if they decide to do it, could be sent sometime in January or so to Afghanistan.
Now, the Marines are a little more nimble: smaller units, they can train a little faster. And the thinking is they can send about 1,500 or so Marines to Afghanistan to replace some who will be coming home in November.
MONTAGNE: Well, of course we've heard a steady call for more troops to Afghanistan from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Barack - Robert Gates all the way to Barack Obama. Tell us a little bit more about that.
BOWMAN: Well, under the plan they're talking about, the Pentagon, right now they just send those 1,500 or so Marines to Afghanistan. They'd replace Marines there now in the southern and western part of Afghanistan who are training Iraq's security - I'm sorry, Afghan security forces, and then also going after resurgent Taliban. That's the Second Battalion of the Seventh Marines out of California.
Again, they're scheduled to come home in November. We don't know which Marine units would replace them in Afghanistan. They could be named as early as next week. But another Marine unit in Afghanistan will not be replaced when it comes home in November.
So the total number of American troops there now, about 34,000, could actually drop to 32,000 by the end of November. And, of course, the Marine Commandant General James Conway told reporters just last week he wants to see even more Marines head to Afghanistan. He was very blunt about it, and this is what he had to say.
General JAMES CONWAY (Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps): Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they're going to come from is still up for discussion. In fact, I wouldn't expect anything definitive prior to General Petraeus and his opportunity to brief the president on Iraq.
MONTAGNE: Again, that was Marine General James Conway speaking last month. And Tom, when do you expect an official announcement about troop numbers for both Iraq and Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, we're told some of this could come as early as tomorrow, but most likely next week when Congress comes back into session. And, of course, Defense Secretary Gates and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, are expected to testify on Capitol Hill next week about this issue.
MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.
BOWMAN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.