U.S. troop strength in Iraq at issue

When George W. Bush was running for president back in 2000, he charged U.S. military forces were overburdened with unnecessary deployments abroad.

Blueprint magazine quoted him as saying: “Frustration is up as families are separated and strained. Morale is down. Recruitment is more difficult. And many of our best people in the military are headed for civilian life.”

Now, after one term of Bush playing commander-in-chief, military life is not better, but much worse. Nowhere is the strain on the system more apparent than in Iraq. Last year, in May, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that while resistance grew in Shiite and Sunni cities, troops slated for rotation back home would have their tours extended well beyond the original rotation date.

Then comes a sharp blow. United Press International reports a Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, has issued a report saying unless the Bush administration pares U.S. troop strength in Iraq next year, the 140,000 troops there will turn into a threat to America’s national security.

The UPI report said Podesta believes the future of the U.S. military depends on what the government does in the next few months. “It has become clear,” Podesta said, “that if we still have 140,000 ground troops in Iraq a year from now, we will destroy the all-volunteer army.”

Podesta’s report was written by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis. Korb was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. They argue that the U.S. must cut troop strength in Iraq—with 80,000 troops leaving that country next year and the remainder by the end of 2007—to prevent the loss of the wider “struggle against violent extremists,” which goes well beyond the borders of Iraq.

The Center is calling for a timetable to get our forces out of Iraq. Korb said such a schedule would pressure Iraqi leaders to stabilize the country sooner. That argument has been used by the Democrats, including Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

Bush has resisted establishing any kind of timeline for leaving Iraq, declaring the U.S. would “stay the course.” James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., was quoted by UPI as saying no responsible administration would propose a timetable.

“I don’t think that any responsible administration would either articulate or allow themselves to be held to a deadline or schedule,” Dobbins said, “which doesn’t mean that its opposition can’t oppose it.”

The private report proposes redeployment of American military power, with troops withdrawn from Iraq and distributed to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. It calls for all National Guard and Reserve members to return to this country. The authors contend the redistribution of forces would better confront a global terrorist threat and allow reserve units a badly-needed rest.

The report, according to UPI, states: “Crouched in the trenches in Iraq, the Bush administration has lost sight of the broader battlefield in a global war against multiple networks of violent extremists.” It said Somalia and Sudan in Africa and the Philippines are “breeding grounds for terrorists.”

Korb said Iraqi military training has gone very slowly because motivation is lacking. “We take young men and young women, and we send them to three months of training, and (then) send them to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, so it’s not a question of training,” he said. “It’s really motivation, and if we give them a deadline, that should be the motivation they need. If it’s not, they’ll never get it.”

U.S. Army basic training actually lasts nine weeks with subsequent training in the soldier’s job specialty.

The Army of 1973 was made up mostly of single draftees, while today’s all-volunteer force is composed of married personnel with children. The repeated long deployments are putting great stress on those marriages and families. Most active duty personnel are skilled in tasks valued in the civilian world, so there is strong incentive for them to leave the military.

Blueprint magazine says even those with major combat skills have good reasons to leave the military. Senior commanders and Pentagon officials warn there could be an exodus of seasoned Special Operations personnel to higher-paying civilian jobs in security work in such locales as Baghdad and Kabul. Senior members of the Green Berets or the Navy Seals with 20 years experience or more can earn $50,000 in base pay and retire with a pension of $23,000. Private security companies, however, are offering salaries of $100,000 to almost $200,000, depending on experience.

The drain in manpower, which is growing monthly with the increasing strain of extended combat duty, is causing both parties in Congress to propose boosting the size of the active-duty army. The cost of the Iraqi war, however, is running about $1 billion a week, and the government is loathe to up the cost. Every soldier added to the force costs the Pentagon another $50,000 to $100,000 in its annual budget.

Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld has opted for a “stop-loss” policy, which forces soldiers to serve longer. Officials agree we should put more people in the military, but current lack of support for the Iraq war has decimated recruiting results.

President Bush has declared: “We will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror, to promote freedom and to make our nation more secure.” Yet, he has done little or nothing to address the manpower crisis.

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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