WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's top military officer said Sunday a specific time frame for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq could jeopardize political and economic progress, leading to "dangerous consequences."
Adm. Mike Mullen said the agreement between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set a "general time horizon" for bringing more troops home from the war was a sign of "healthy negotiations for a burgeoning democracy."
"I think the strategic goals of having time horizons are ones that we all seek because eventually we would like to see U.S. forces draw down and eventually all come home," the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said. "This right now doesn't speak to either time lines or timetables, based on my understanding of where we are."
The best way to determine troops levels, he said, is to assess the conditions on the ground and to consult with American commanders — the mission Bush has given him.
"Should that mission change, and we get a new president, and should those conditions be conditions that get generated or required in order to advise a future president, I would do so accordingly," Mullen said. "Based on my time in and out of Iraq in recent months, I think the conditions-based assessments are the way to go and they're very solid. We're making progress and we can move forward accordingly based on those conditions."
Al-Maliki was quoted by a German magazine over the weekend as saying U.S. troops should leave "as soon as possible" and he called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's suggestion of 16 months "the right timeframe for a withdrawal." Later, his chief spokesman said in a statement that the prime minister's comments were "not conveyed accurately."
Mullen, asked about the possibility of withdrawing all combat troops within two years, said, "I think the consequences could be very dangerous."
"It hard to say exactly what would happen. I'd worry about any kind of rapid movement out and creating instability where we have stability. We're engaged very much right now with the Iraqi people. The Iraqi leadership is starting to generate the kind of political progress that we need to make. The economy is starting to move in the right direction. So all those things are moving in the right direction," Mullen said.
The military buildup in Iraq that began more than 18 months ago has ended. In recent days, the last of the five additional combat brigades sent in by Bush last year has left the country.
"The day is coming when American forces will step back more and more from combat roles," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "The day is coming when will be doing more in the way of training and less in the way of fighting. Those goals are being achieved now. ... And so, it's not at all unusual to start to think that there is a horizon out there, in the not too distant future, in which the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. forces are going to change dramatically and those of the Iraqi forces are going to become dominant."
Mullen said if conditions keep improving, "I would look to be able to make recommendations to President Bush in the fall to continue those reductions." Asked if more troops might depart before Bush leaves office in January, Mullen said, "Certainly there are assumptions which you could make which would make that possible."
Turning attention to Afghanistan, where violence is on the rise from Taliban attacks, Mullen expressed concern about "a joining, a syndication, of various extremists and terrorist groups which provides for a much more intense threat, internal to Pakistan as well as the ability to flow — greater freedom to flow forces across that porous border."
The top U.S. commander in Iraq said in an Associated Press interview Saturday that after intense U.S. assaults, al-Qaida may be considering shifting focus to its original home base in Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus said there are signs that foreign fighters recruited by al-Qaida to do battle in Iraq are being diverted to the largely ungoverned areas in Pakistan from which the fighters can cross into Afghanistan.
Mullen cited "mixed progress" in Afghanistan, but added, "I would not say in any way, shape or form that we're losing in Afghanistan."
Noting U.S. participation in international talks Saturday with Iran over its nuclear program, Mullen said he was encouraged. "A few weeks ago I wouldn't have thought those were possible."
But he said he supports continued economic, financial, diplomatic and political pressure on Iran.
"I fundamentally believe that they're on a path to achieve nuclear weapons some time in the future. I think that's a very destabilizing possibility in that part of the world. I don't need — we don't need — any more instability in that part of the world," Mullen said.
Rice said she believes pressure is growing on Iran "to do the right thing." But, she added, while the U.S. is committed to a diplomatic solution, Bush is keeping all options open.
Mullen, meanwhile, discussed the fallout from a potential attack against Tehran by either the U.S. or Israel. "Right now I'm fighting two wars and I don't need a third one."
He added, "I worry about the instability in that part of the world and, in fact, the possible unintended consequences of a strike like that and, in fact, having an impact throughout the region that would be difficult to both predict exactly what it would be and then the actions that we would have to take to contain it."
Mullen appeared on "Fox News Sunday," while Rice's interview with CNN's "Late Edition" was taped Friday and aired Sunday.