Decisions about withdrawing troops from Iraq and sending more troops to Afghanistan have been delayed until the Pentagon provides President Barack Obama with more detail about the risks and implications of the issues confronting him, according to two senior Pentagon officials.
Both officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, have a direct understanding of the discussion regarding troop withdrawals. They said the military is not concerned about the delays, but that there is concern about the deteriorating levels of security in Afghanistan. The officials confirmed that the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command are now working on three Iraq combat troop withdrawal options for the president: 16 months, 19 months and 23 months. The first option is consistent with Obama’s campaign promise. But in recent discussions with senior military leaders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, it became clear the president wanted to see other options and have a full discussion of the risks involved with each of them, the officials said. “The President asked for ideas and we are working on them,” one official said. So far, a final recommendation from the military has not been submitted to the White House. The 19- and 23-month options were developed by the military, but Obama did not specifically ask for them, the officials said. “The President is not fixated on a time frame. He has taken a step back and is reflecting on what’s at stake,” the second official said.
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Given the current security situation in Iraq, the U.S. can likely reduce troop level from 14 brigades to 12 by the end of the year, the officials said. But it’s unclear when Obama will make that decision for combat forces. Forces rotating into Iraq could be categorized as support forces and trainers, rather than combat forces, the officials said. When asked earlier this weekend about the three different scenarios being considered by the Pentagon, the White House refused to discuss the ongoing planning for Iraq. “There’s been a very good back and forth in a very logical process that has allowed the president to hear from commanders and forces at all levels,” a White House official said. “Fact is that they are coming to a meeting of the minds on troops and on the need for a diplomatic and political strategy to end the war in Iraq and ease the strain on the troops and their families.” There also appears to be a delay in making a decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan, both senior Pentagon officials said. It is believed that thousands of ground combat Marines, a marine aviation unit and Army special forces could be sent to southern Afghanistan in the weeks ahead. But for now, the White House is waiting on sending two additional Army brigades until it is nearer to completing a review of its strategy in Afghanistan, the officials said. Its not clear when that might happen. The White House is now reviewing strategy assessments completed by the military and awaiting the return of Richard Holbrooke, who made his first trip to the region as envoy. The Pentagon had been tentatively set to announce the deployments last week, but both officials said when further discussions took place with the White House, it became clear a longer timeframe was needed. “There is a desire to further work on the strategy before sending the bulk of the troops,” one official said. But the official also underscored the security situation in Afghanistan “grows more dire every day. Everybody understands there is a sense of urgency.”