WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, acknowledging that he was unsure how long the current buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq would last, said yesterday that it would not be until the middle of summer that commanders would be able to evaluate whether the increase in forces was working.
In past public statements, Gates has said he hoped to end the increase of 21,500 combat troops by December. But in recent weeks, some senior officers, particularly the Army general in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, have suggested that the buildup might need to be extended into early next year, a recommendation currently being debated by senior commanders.
Gates did not directly address the suggestion by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno to keep force levels at higher levels. He said any decision would depend on progress on the ground.
"The truth is, I think people don't know right now how long this will last," Gates told a Pentagon news conference. "The thinking of those involved in the process was that it would be a period of months, not a period of years or a year and a half or something like that."
The length of the buildup of troops has become an issue of increasing political rancor as congressional Democrats have attempted to force the Bush administration to begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
The increase in troops has added new burdens on an already stretched Army, with three major units being deployed to Iraq as part of the new plan without the standard year-long stays at home bases.
In January, Gates adjusted Pentagon deployment policies to allow for more frequent call-ups of National Guard units to relieve some of the stress on the active-duty Army. But he acknowledged that even with the new policy, more combat brigades may be forced to have their deployments extended in Iraq for more than the normal one-year tours, and others may find their "dwell time" at home shortened as well.
"I think we always anticipated ... that there would be a transition time when there would be both extensions and violation of dwell policy, just because of the magnitude of the commitments that we have," Gates said, adding that it was "very possible" such hardships might last for another year or two.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shortened home stays cut into training time, meaning that some units would train only for counterinsurgency operations rather than for the "full spectrum" of tactics as in normal times.
"You end up with your troops who are well-trained for the mission they're going to, but you do forfeit some of the kind of training you would like to do just to have a little bit more readiness in case something happens that you're not expecting," Pace said at the same news conference.
Such concerns have been raised before in recent weeks by members of the Joint Chiefs, particularly Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, who said he was concerned the Marines were increasingly unprepared for rapid landings and attacks in the early days of a crisis - their primary mission in the past.
Gates said the need to keep even current, truncated training schedules in place has hampered the Pentagon's ability to send troops to Iraq more quickly as part of the buildup.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.