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WASHINGTON — Top military commanders told Congress this week they don’t know when or if troop levels will go back down under the president’s new plan to stabilize Iraq.

Earlier this month Multi-National Force-Iraq Commander Gen. George Casey suggested the 21,500 soldiers and Marines being sent to Iraq could be returned home as early as this summer if conditions improve.

But on Tuesday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said for planning purposes, he must assume the time line for having an extra 4,000 Marines in Anbar province is open-ended.

“A surge implies there is a payback at some future date: We’re not calling it that, we’re calling it a plus-up,” he told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“This is the latest in a series of steps and operations in Iraq. This is not a Hail Mary. That comes at the end of the game. This is just another step.”

Those comments were echoed by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, who declined to give lawmakers any clear time lines for when the influx of 17,500 soldiers to Baghdad could be reduced again to current troop levels.

Christopher Preble, director of the Cato Institute’s foreign policy department, said he has been surprised by military officials’ and pundits’ implication that the president’s new plan would be only a temporary troop increase in Iraq.

“We’ve seen surges before — in January 2005, for the (Iraqi) elections — but that mission was contingent upon one event,” he said. “This is just an increase.”

Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said military officials can’t anticipate any short time line for the increase because such a move has already proved to be a temporary solution.

“If we’re there for six months, they already have a playbook for a six-month surge,” he said. “They go underground, attacks go down, and later they come back. This kind of mission is completely different. It may take longer than they want.”

Kagan said he expects the troop levels to stay elevated for at least 18 months “if they want to succeed in Iraq.”

Schoomaker and Conway both said they were confident that U.S. forces could not only carry out but also succeed under the president’s new plan. At the same time, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told the senators that regaining control in Iraq would be “hard, but not hopeless.”

Conway said officials are hopeful that short-term success will get the U.S. military back to “normal” troop levels in Iraq. But if the increase does last more than a few months, it will have a significant impact on overall force readiness.

“If the requirement is for (4,000 more Marines in Anbar province) for an extended period, it will make things difficult,” he said. “It will reduce dwell time for some units, and place pressure on our one-to-one ratio.”

Training and equipment reset could also be negatively affected, Conway and Schoomaker said. But both men told Congress that they could send more troops into Afghanistan if called upon, even with the increased strain in Iraq.

Democrats on the committee expressed concern that that strain could seriously damage the entire force.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., who served with the Army in Iraq, said he was dismayed that the president “is pushing a plan for extended escalation in Iraq … and not a short-term surge.”

Committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said even a temporary increase adds stress not just on troops, but also their families and entire military infrastructure.

“That’s unacceptable when the potential gains to American national security are so uncertain,” he said.

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