America's stretched army

Posted in Iraq | 30-Dec-03 | Source: New York Times

More than a third of the U.S. Army's active-duty combat troops are now in Iraq, and by spring the Pentagon plans to let most of them come home for urgently needed rest. Many will have served longer than a normal overseas tour and under extremely harsh conditions. When the 130,000 Americans rotate out for home leave, nearly the same number will rotate in. At that point, should the United States need to send additional fighters anywhere else in the world, it will have dangerously few of them to spare.

This is the clearest warning yet that the Bush administration is pushing America's peacetime armed forces toward their limits. Washington will not be able to sustain the mismatch between unrealistic White House ambitions and finite Pentagon means much longer without long-term damage to America's military strength. The only solution is for the Bush administration to return to foreign policy sanity, starting with a more cooperative, less vindictive approach to European allies who could help share America's military burdens.

Most American strategists fear at least a temporary upsurge in attacks in Iraq as the troop rotations get under way and maneuvering to produce an interim Iraqi government intensifies. More than 100,000 American troops will be needed for many more months, unless the Bush administration starts wooing NATO allies instead of snubbing them. Eventually, the Iraqi recruits now being hurriedly trained may provide some relief. Yet there are doubts about their military competence and political reliability, and fears that if Washington is in too much of a hurry, it will succeed only in recreating Saddam Hussein's old security forces in new American-issued uniforms.

Meanwhile, if a sudden crisis were to erupt in North Korea, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the Pentagon might be hard pressed to respond. For a time, it could make do by sending tired troops back into action, mobilizing reserves and borrowing forces from areas that are quiet but still volatile. Such expedients have severe long-term costs. The White House must recognize the damage its unilateralism is inflicting on the army and change course before the damage becomes harder to undo.