LAS VEGAS (AP) – President Bush said Thursday he will not jeopardize security gains in Iraq by withdrawing U.S. forces too fast, another signal that troop reductions could slow or stop altogether this summer.
The president said he would resist any temptation to bring troops home to score political points with a war-weary public or compromise with Democrats in Congress seeking to wind down the war.
The U.S. troop commitment is expected to be down to roughly 130,000 to 135,000 by July, the same number as before Bush sent in reinforcements a year ago.
“You know, a lot of folks say, ‘What’s next, Mr. President?'” Bush said. “And my answer is, we have come too far in this important theater in this war on terror not to make sure that we succeed. And therefore, any further troops reductions will be based on commanders and conditions.
“The temptation of course is for people to, you know, say ‘Make sure you do the politically right thing,'” Bush told members of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. “That’s not my nature. That’s not exactly what we’re going to do.”
In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said any halt to reducing the troops that were part of military buildup demonstrates the president’s “insistence on a war without end.” She said it would further undermine U.S. military readiness.
Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress have pressed unsuccessfully to reduce U.S. military involvement in Iraq. If Bush expresses reluctance to continue withdrawing troops beyond July, it could prompt a new round of conflict between the White House and Capitol Hill as the November presidential elections approach.
“The president’s Iraq policy will result in the same number of troops committed to an endless war in Iraq at the end of this year as were there at the end of 2006,” said Pelosi, who expressed concern over deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan.
Bush spoke about Iraq, Afghanistan and a need to extend the domestic wiretapping law during a three-day swing through California, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri to highlight themes of his State of the Union address and raise an estimated $4.7 million for the GOP, including $550,000 for Nevada’s Republican Party.
Some U.S. commanders worry that security improvements in Iraq since June are fragile and could be reversed if the extra five brigades Bush dispatched there are removed too soon. One Army brigade and two Marine battalions have already returned home and will not be replaced. Four other Army brigades are to come out by July. That would leave 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops in Iraq—the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements. It’s unclear what will happen after that.
The first sign Bush might endorse a pause in troop reductions came earlier this month when he recounted for reporters his meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in Kuwait on Jan. 12.
“My attitude is, if he (Petraeus) didn’t want to continue the drawdown, that’s fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed,” Bush said. “I said to the general, if you want to slow her down, fine; it’s up to you.”
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters he has not discussed with Petraeus the possibility of him recommending to Bush a pause in the troop drawdown after July. Gates stressed that regardless of what Petraeus recommends, his will not be the only opinion.
“The president will also have available to him the views of the commander at Central Command (Adm. William J. Fallon) and the Joint Chiefs, and I will have my own view,” Gates said. “The president will have the benefit of all of that come March and April, in terms of making a decision.”
Some in Congress have urged Bush to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, where violence has escalated.
Last year was Afghanistan’s most deadly since the ouster of the Taliban in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,500 people—mostly insurgents—died in the violence, according to an Associated Press count of figures provided by local and international officials. Bush acknowledged the turmoil in Afghanistan, but ticked off signs of progress in getting girls to school, building highways and health clinics.
“Afghanistan is working on their—on democracy, and it’s hard work. It’s not easy,” Bush said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s in our interest to help them. It’s in our interest to help them because we believe that liberty is transformative.”
Earlier this week, however, a study, co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, that said Afghanistan risks sliding into a failed state—becoming the “forgotten war” because of a rising violent insurgency and declining international support. Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Bush on Wednesday that Canada will end its military mission in Afghanistan if another NATO country does not put more soldiers in the dangerous south.