WASHINGTON — President Bush's announcement Tuesday that he'll maintain troop levels in Iraq through the end of his presidency suggests that despite his claim that the surge of additional U.S. troops in Iraq has succeeded, the security gains could be temporary, defense officials and experts said.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and the Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said Tuesday in a speech before the National Defense University.
Bush, however, announced that he'll order only 8,000 more combat troops to leave Iraq by February, the month after his presidency ends, reducing the number there to about 138,000.
A Marine battalion and an Army brigade combat team from the Army's 10th Mountain Division that had been scheduled to deploy to Iraq will go to Afghanistan instead, Bush said.
U.S. defense officials said the president's decision to withdraw only 8,000 soldiers from Iraq reflects a persistent concern among top commanders that the improvements in security could be temporary and that renewed violence could erupt. Officials fear that Iran might reactivate the Shiite Muslim militias it's armed and trained and that the Sunni group al Qaida in Iraq is trying to reestablish itself in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.
Ret. Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine with Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, said that while the drawdown is small, the U.S. is winning — but withdrawing too soon could undermine that success.
"The security gains are real and tangible but fragile," said Nagl, who visited Iraq last month. "If you declare victory too soon, whether in a province or the whole country, al Qaida can come back. And it is a whole lot less work and a whole lot less blood spilled keeping them out once you have cleared an area than it is pulling out prematurely and then having to go back and clear them out again."
Bush's plan appears to fall short of demands by the Iraqi government for a withdrawal timetable. Mohammed al Askari, an Iraqi defense ministry spokesman, said Tuesday that Iraq is "moving in the right direction" and because of that the administration is "obliged to reduce its forces in Iraq within an acceptable time frame that ends in complete withdrawal."
The Iraqi government's inability to schedule provincial elections, however, has raised concerns in other parts of the U.S. military leadership, defense officials told McClatchy. The elections were supposed to be held next month; they could be postponed until summer.
Although Bush said that he plans to apply the lessons of the Iraq surge to Afghanistan, experts said the U.S. doesn't have enough troops to do that.
In Afghanistan, defense officials said, the president's decision would provide a net increase of about 1,500 U.S. troops, almost all of them helicopter crews, military police and logistics units attached to the Army brigade bound for Helmand province, the center of Afghanistan's illicit narcotics trade.
Bush said the troops in Afghanistan would do things similar to their missions in Iraq — train local forces, protect democratic institutions and regain control of the security situation. As in Iraq, the president said, the State Department would send more provincial reconstruction teams to Afghanistan to rebuild local economies.
But they'll do so with far fewer troops. There currently are 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan, a country about 50 percent larger than Iraq where the Islamist insurgency is gaining strength.
Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the non-partisan Middle East Institute, said that given Afghanistan's complex tribal system, mountainous terrain and poor infrastructure, the U.S. would have to send 100,000 troops to have any sustainable impact.
"It's a decision built out of desperation," Weinbaum said.
(Nick Spangler of The Miami Herald contributed from Baghdad)