Adm. Mike Mullen, the nation's top military officer, says that, for now, he would likely recommend withdrawing more U.S. troops from Iraq this fall if improved security trends continue over the summer.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at a Pentagon briefing today that security is "unquestionably and remarkably better," and that "if these trends continue, I expect to be able early in the fall to recommend to the secretary and the president further troop reductions."
Mullen, who recently returned from a tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, indicated he wouldn't go so far as to say that progress in Iraq, "from a military perspective, has reached a tipping point, or is irreversible. It has not and it is not."
Mullen said he had expected to find the security situation improved in Iraq, but did not expect it to be so improved that he would be able to tour a market in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, in Eastern Baghdad, so soon after violence there had ended, "or that Iraqi security forces would now have the confidence and the command to take the lead as much as they are."
Despite the sharp decline in violence in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, remains concerned that the security gains there are reversible, and that withdrawing troops too quickly would be a mistake.
A senior military official told ABC News that the thinking among commanders in Iraq is that there will be a one or two brigade reduction in troops by the end of the year. That would be a reduction of 3,500 to 7,000 troops.
Even with the departure of the 21,500 combat troops that made up the surge, U.S. troop levels in Iraq currently stand at 150,000 because of an ongoing troop rotation, as new units replace those finishing their tours of duty. Even though they should stabilize to 140,000 by the end of August, that number is still higher than the pre-surge level of 133,500 because additional support troops for the surge will remain in place.
Sometime in September, President Bush will receive recommendations from Mullen, Petraeus, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Based on their recommendations, Bush will decide whether further drawdowns are warranted.
An additional pressure for potential troop cuts in Iraq involves the shifting of troops to deal with the escalating violence in Afghanistan. Military commanders there have pressed the Pentagon for an additional 10,000 troops.
Mullen has said that the only way that will happen is if additional troops are drawn down from Iraq, freeing up replacement units to divert to Afghanistan, instead. Either way, Mullen indicated that any extra troops wouldn't be able to arrive until next year.
At the same briefing today, Gates said the Pentagon is working on an expedited timetable that could see more American troops headed to Afghanistan "sooner, rather than later."