WASHINGTON -- Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated yesterday that the buildup of troops ordered into Iraq last winter by President Bush will halt in April, regardless of progress in the war, because there are no fresh troops to replace them.
Mullen, who has led the Navy for two years, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the troop increase was intended to be temporary.
"I believe prudence dictates that we plan for an eventual drawdown," he told the committee, which seems likely to approve his nomination this week.
Mullen's brusque assessment, which seemed to be at odds with the president's rationale for the Iraq war, reflects the growing concern of many top commanders about the toll the conflict is exacting on the military and the impatience with the lack of political progress in Iraq.
Perhaps signaling his intention to be an independent voice as the president's chief military adviser, Mullen sharply criticized the administration's failure to use its full economic and political power in Iraq, and its failure to "establish an early and significant dialogue" with other countries in the region.
In written testimony to the committee, Mullen also said that the United States had tried to occupy Iraq "with an insufficient force."
Nonetheless, Mullen said, there has been military progress.
"Security is better - not great, but better," he said.
He acknowledged that "there does not seem to be much political progress" by the Iraqi government. And without political progress, he said, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."
Bush, who nominated Mullen to replace Marine Gen. Peter Pace as the nation's senior military officer, has often said that U.S. strategy in the war and troop strength in Iraq will depend on "conditions on the ground."
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is to report by Sept. 15 on the effects of the "surge," which poured 28,500 more troops into Iraq from February to June, bringing the total to nearly 160,000.
Petraeus is expected to say that military progress has been made, but a parallel assessment by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is likely to report that the Iraqi government has made little or no progress toward the political reconciliation or economic development that the troop increase was intended to enable.
To sustain the current force, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has approved extending combat tours to 15 months for active-duty troops from the routine 12 months. Gates and other defense officials have acknowledged that such measures must be temporary because of the strain they impose on soldiers and their families. Even with 15-month tours, most troops are barely home a year before being deployed again, and many are on their third deployments.
"I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking on them," Mullen said.
For that reason, he said, when the current force begins to rotate home in April, it will be replaced "just with rotational units" and not with replacements for those who made up the troop increase. The number of troops would drop to about 131,000.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democratic critic of the war and a former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, said, "Effectively, that means ... by next April, regardless of the conditions on the ground, the surge will end."
"Yes, sir, that's fair," Mullen responded.
Despite the stakes in Iraq, where they think insurgents must be denied a haven, many top U.S. commanders are worried that the war is wearing out troops and equipment, and preventing soldiers, airmen and Marines from practicing skills other than fighting insurgencies.
The Army is unable to regularly practice large-scale armored maneuvers, said Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff.
Marines provide only perfunctory training in amphibious landings, so a midcareer officer might never have led his men in an amphibious operation, Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, a deputy commandant, said in a recent interview.
"The longer, larger war on terror - and I believe it is a long war - will likely take our troops to places we do not now foresee and will demand of them skills they may not yet possess," Mullen said. He said he is worried about "our ability to respond to other crises and contingencies."
Withdrawing the troops of five ground combat brigades would leave 15 brigades in Iraq, with two Marine regimental combat teams, a brigade of the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, along with National Guard brigades including one each from Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Indiana, and attached units from dozens of other states.
Deeper cuts would be needed to reach the Pentagon's goal of giving every combat unit two years at its home base for every year in Iraq. That goal is based on the time required for retraining and re-equipping exhausted units.
Using that formula, Mullen said, the Pentagon could sustain 10 combat brigades in Iraq, half of the current force.