"Our decisions today and in the months ahead will be critical to regional stability and our national security interests for years to come," the secretary said. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
The secretary cautioned against undue haste in withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. President Bush's decision yesterday to withdraw 8,000 servicemembers from Iraq by January is about right, as conditions in Iraq are still fragile, Gates said. When he entered office in December 2006, the secretary told the lawmakers, the main U.S. concern in Iraq was to halt and reverse the spiraling violence to prevent a strategic calamity for the United States. The United States also wanted to allow the Iraqis to make progress on the political, economic and security fronts, he added.
"Disagreements in our country still exist over the speed of the drawdowns and whether we should adhere to hard-and-fast timelines or more flexible time horizons," Gates said. "I worry that the great progress our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to override a measure of caution born of uncertainty."
U.S. military commanders do not yet believe the gains in Iraq are necessarily enduring. "The continuing but carefully modulated reductions the president has ordered represent, I believe, not only the right direction but also the right course of action – especially considering planned and unplanned redeployments by some of our coalition partners," Gates said. "The planned reductions are an acceptable risk today, but also provide for unforeseen circumstances in the future."
The planned reductions also preserve options for the next commander in chief, the secretary said. There are 146,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq today. At the height of the surge, there were about 166,000.
"As we proceed deeper into the endgame, I would urge our nation's leaders to implement strategies that, while steadily reducing our presence in Iraq, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders," he said. "I would also urge our leaders to keep in mind that we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways."
The U.S. military already has withdrawn the five Army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions and the Marine expeditionary unit that made up the surge force. Bush announced yesterday that a further 8,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by February without being replaced. The withdrawal of about 3,400 noncombat forces begins this month and will continue through the fall and winter.
The drawdown is possible because of the success achieved in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity, Gates said, noting that Iraqi troops have stepped up to the plate and that even with fewer American troops in the country, the trends in violence are down.
"Our casualties have been greatly reduced -- though even one is still too many -- and overall violence is down 80 percent," he said. "The recent turnover of Anbar province to Iraqi provincial control – the 11th of 18 provinces to be turned over – highlights how much the situation has improved."
Still, the secretary said, some problems still loom, including the prospect of violence in the lead-up to elections, worrisome reports about sectarian efforts to slow the assimilation of the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups into the Iraqi security forces, Iranian influence, threats al-Qaida continues to pose, and a resurgence of illegal militias the military calls "special groups."