The Bush administration is thus being pulled by competing goals and constraints. It does not want to jeopardize the gains that have been made – from signs of improving local governance to defeats inflicted upon Al Qaeda in Iraq. But at the same time, it must take into account the limits placed on it by an overstretched US military.
Yet another factor: Bush, looking to his own legacy and to the November election, wants to prove that the surge has worked.
"We're seeing clear signs of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgents taking advantage of the reductions already made," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy-planning specialist for Iraq. "This talk of a pause [in a phased reduction of troops in Iraq] indicates Petraeus and others are thinking a further drawdown will create more problems for them."
Some architects of the surge are wary of even a drawdown to presurge levels. And anything beyond it, they warn, could set the United States and Iraq back to the dire straits of 2006.
Indeed, the withdrawal of the remaining surge brigades entails "considerable risk" and "will make the task of moving forward a bit harder and a little bit longer," says Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington who advised the Bush administration on last year's revised Iraq strategy.