The bottom line of Bush's troop announcement on Tuesday is that the U.S. military footprint in Iraq largely will stay intact for the rest of the year as he prepares to pass command of the wars to his successor on Jan. 20. Bush is sending more troops to Afghanistan, but Democrats say they are not enough.
Bush chose the measured drawdown in Iraq because he did not want to jeopardize recent security gains. He sent in 30,000 extra troops last year to buy time for political and economic progress in Iraq, which has been slow to develop. Military commanders tell Bush there appears to be a "degree of durability" to the security gains, but progress in Iraq remains fragile and reversible.
In a speech at the National Defense University, Bush emphasized the positive:
"While the enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive. Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight. As a result, we've been able to carry out a policy of return on success: reducing American combat forces in Iraq as conditions on the ground continue to improve."
On Wednesday, Bush is meeting in the Oval Office with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Tuesday afternoon, he visited severely wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and saw face-to-face the human consequences of war.
"On the one hand you see the horrors of war," he said after spending an hour with wounded soldiers. "And on the other hand you see the courage of the people who have volunteered to serve."
Bush advisers said U.S. troop withdrawals were possible because of clear, undeniable progress on the security front, which paved the way for other nations to pull out their troops too. They said the 30-member coalition with forces in Iraq would shrink to a handful in the next 90 days. They are leaving it to the Iraqi government to announce who is staying and who is not.
The U.S. troop reductions, however, were smaller than expected. In short, the war is requiring more troops in Iraq than people thought would be needed now. When you do the math, the 138,000 troops who will remain in Iraq as the Bush presidency comes to a close is higher than the 135,000 who were there before the troop buildup.
Too many wild cards remain: Al Qaeda in Iraq is down but not out. Iran is not playing the active role the Americans say it once did in supporting instability in Iraq, but that could be temporary. Provincial elections are expected by year's end, but no date has been set and Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis have far to go before they agree on how to share power.
The Sons of Iraq - former insurgents, ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists and other Sunnis who joined up with the United States to fight al Qaeda - helped reduce violence. But Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government remains wary of the group comprising almost wholly members of the Sunni Muslim sect, worried that these armed militias might decide to turn their guns on Iraq's Shiite majority someday.
"We're playing it safe in Iraq," said Samuel Brannen, deputy director of the security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former adviser to an independent commission on Iraq headed by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones. "We're consolidating security gains, but the political gains haven't followed. We still don't have a plan to get out of Iraq."
Democrats seized the opportunity to denounce the president's action, but his decision is unlikely to do much to change debate about the Iraq issue in the presidential campaign.
Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, leader of the Senate majority, said he was "stunned" that Bush was not bringing home more troops from Iraq and was sending so few to Afghanistan. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat, said the continued heavy commitment of U.S. forces is hampering the U.S. ability to fight the "real war against terrorism" in Afghanistan.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who has said he wants to pull all the troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, said Bush was just "tinkering around the edges" of military deployments and "kicking the can down the road to the next president" who will "inherit a status quo that is still unstable."
Republican nominee John McCain countered, saying Bush's actions demonstrated "what success in our efforts there can look like." Calling Obama's Iraq strategy reckless, McCain said, "Sen. Obama believes we must lose in Iraq to win in Afghanistan."
Bush spent more than half his speech on Afghanistan. The troop increase in Afghanistan will be very small. Two Marine units are leaving in November, to be replaced by the Marine battalion Bush mentioned in his speech. That means the number of combat troops in Afghanistan would go down this year.
The arrival of the Army brigade in Afghanistan in January will mean a net increase of combat troops, but of only 1,000 to 1,200 troops, plus however many support troops are sent along with it.
The Bush administration does not see the situation in Afghanistan as spiraling out of control, said a senior administration official who briefed White House reporters about Bush's announcement. He said if the situation in Afghanistan should become more critical, the United States could return to 15-month deployments, mobilize more reserve units, shift military assets from one theater to another or increase nonmilitary support, which the administration already is doing.
He described the extra troops being sent to Afghanistan as a "down payment," leaving open the possibility that additional troops or equipment could be deployed there, although perhaps not before Bush leaves office.