Joint Chiefs meeting likely to be sobering

Session today with president is preparation for war report

August 31, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- President Bush meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon today to begin preparing a pivotal report on the Iraq war, even as controversy is growing about the accuracy of the statistics and measures the administration will use to make its case to Congress and the nation the week of Sept. 10.

The high-level military consultations come amid growing political pressure in Washington for a change of course in Iraq, with Democrats and some Republicans, such as influential Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, urging that troop withdrawals begin before Christmas. They also come just days before the official release of a progress report from Congress' investigative arm, the General Accountability Office.

Bush has spent much of the past two weeks urging public support for holding the course in Iraq.

But the war's rising costs and whether to shift strategy are likely to be at issue in today's Pentagon meetings as the service chiefs give Bush what a senior official described as "individual and private" assessments of the effect of the war on their ability to maintain ready forces and on how to best contain the sectarian fighting in Iraq.

It is likely to be a sobering session.

Strained forces

Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's top officer, each have said that the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented them from readying troops for other kinds of military operations.

Their forces are so strained that the United States does not have a "ready brigade" of ground forces on high alert to respond to emergencies, a routine practice since the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. Army Forces Command said.

At least one of the chiefs privately advised Bush last December against ordering a "surge" of 28,000 troops into Iraq, arguing that it shouldn't be started if it couldn't be sustained. Since then, the Army has found itself so short of troops that only by extending combat tours in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months, a step it ordered with extreme reluctance, could the surge be maintained.

But that will come to an end next spring. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, second in command in Iraq, told reporters last week that the 28,000 surge troops will be called home starting in April as their 15-month tours are completed, and not replaced.

That would leave at most 130,000 American troops in Iraq. Senior officers say privately that the military mission in Iraq will have to be adjusted accordingly, with American troops no longer able to physically occupy huge swaths of territory.

The four-star officers - Conway, Casey, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley - "will provide the president with their unvarnished recommendations and their assessments of current operations," Army Maj. Gen. Richard J. Sherlock Jr., director of operational planning for the Joint Staff, told Pentagon reporters.

Mullen, chosen to replace Pace as chairman next month, also has been critical of the Iraq war effort and its effects on military operations around the world.

The briefings for the president will include the chiefs' assessment of the military's "global force posture" and other issues not directly related to Iraq, a Joint Staff official said. "But the elephant in the room is obviously Iraq," said the official.

The consultations are leading toward the release of a major White House report next month assessing the effects of the "surge" in Iraq. Bush will also confer in the days ahead with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Adm. William J. Fallon, overall Mideast commander, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker. Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert who designed the tactics currently being used in Iraq, will advise the president on how he intends to manage the war with a smaller force.

That advice is expected to be reflected in the White House report to be released by Sept. 14, after Petraeus and Crocker testify before Congress that week. The report will be a formal assessment of the progress Iraq's government has made toward 18 benchmarks intended to measure security and effectiveness of the government in achieving economic progress and political reconciliation.

But that report, together with a parallel assessment on the Iraq benchmarks by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a separate report on the status of Iraq's army and national police, are likely only to underscore the difficulty in rating the status of security and political progress in the midst of an especially vicious and complex war, military and civilian analysts said.

All three reports were mandated by Congress last spring as a condition for appropriating funds for the war.

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