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Iraq War Stretching US Army to Breaking Point
by David T. Pyne
24 October 2003US Army

Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army.


During his farewell speech back in June, the outgoing Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Eric Shinseki, prudently urged US policymakers to “Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army." To be sure, General Shinseki bears great responsibility along with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for degrading the combat effectiveness of the Army by successfully beginning implementation of a plan to transform it into an all-wheeled force devoid of war-winning tanks and tracked vehicles. On the other hand, his warning on the need to increase the size of the Army to meet its increasing commitments abroad could not be any more timely. Several Congressional leaders and national security experts have since echoed his call to increase the Army’s end strength by two divisions to meet its increasing commitments abroad.

The US Army recently reported that nearly half of its combat brigades -- sixteen out of thirty-three -- are bogged down in occupation operations in Iraq, with the rest in Kuwait, Afghanistan and the Balkans and elsewhere throughout the world. Nearly three-quarters of the Army’s combat brigades are currently deployed in Afghanistan and in and around Iraq. Under Rumsfeld, by next spring all but three of the Army's combat brigades will either be in Iraq or on their way home from Iraq. Some of them will come home from Iraq and head almost immediately to Afghanistan or Bosnia or South Korea or the Sinai Desert. Over 370,000 US Army troops or over seventy-five percent of its total force is currently deployed in about 120 countries worldwide, leaving just over 100,000 troops to defend the country from a hypothetical attack and safeguard its borders. One military analyst has called the massive scale of this unprecedented US military deployment the equivalent of “civilization building,” resulting in a serious and costly overextension of our ground forces. Furthermore, for the first time in contemporary US history, there are no active US Army brigades available for deployment in the event of a crisis. Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans have stretched the Army so thin that when Lt. Gen. John Vines, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently requested one more Army battalion be deployed to that country, service leaders could not find one in the active force. 

The September 1st, 2003 edition of Time magazine featured a showcase article, entitled, “Is the Army Stretched Too Thin?” The authors of the article present the specter of what senior US policymakers would do were North Korea to launch a surprise invasion of South Korea. If North Korea, which threatens nuclear war against the US on a more or less weekly basis, were to invade the Republic of Korea in the south, the US would have only two recently activated National Guard brigades (now serving as the Army’s “Strategic Reserve”) to send to reinforce the ROK Army, along with 60,000 Marines stationed in Okinawa -- about 72,000 men in all. The authors questioned whether a lack of ready reinforcements might force the President to consider using nuclear weapons to save South Korea from defeat. Previous US contingency plans to deal with a North Korean invasion of its southern neighbor have called for fully 400,000 US troops to be sent to reinforce the ROK and ensure a North Korean defeat. A US effort to respond militarily to a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan by Communist China would meet with similar complications, although such an invasion would obviously require a smaller commitment in US troops and a greater concentration of US naval and airpower.

Secretary Rumsfeld stated on the eve of the that only 30,000 troops would be needed to garrison Iraq by September. However, in the wake of the August terrorist attack on the UN building by Al Queda's brand-new Iraqi chapter it has become painfully clear that the number of US troops needed to pacify America’s newest colonial possession has been rising, not falling, in response to the Administration’s post-war policy blunders and miscalculations. In retrospect, it appears that the former Chief of Staff of the Army, General Eric Shinseki, was prescient in his testimony to Congress before the war that in his estimation, “several hundred thousand troops would be needed to garrison Iraq” following a US invasion. Shinseki came under heavy attack from Rumsfeld and the rest of the neocon posse in the Administration for daring to contradict him in making this statement. 

Rumsfeld continues to deny that there is a guerilla war being waged in Iraq against US servicemen because to do so would be an admission that his rosy predictions of post-war success had been proven false. In the wake of the terror bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has called for tens of thousands more US troops to be sent to Iraq for occupation duty. McCain and several other supporters of the Army in Congress have also called for increasing the Army’s end strength by one or two divisions. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld has categorically rejected prudent calls by champions of the US military in Congress and elsewhere in the country to increase the end strength of the Army to help alleviate the stress it is experiencing with half its combat brigades bogged down in Iraq. Even before the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Army was already badly overextended due to Clinton-era UN peacemaking commitments, along with the yet to be finished war in Afghanistan. Some critics say the argument over enlarging the military misses the point. They say that what the country needs is not a bigger Army but a different foreign policy. Lawrence Korb, a senior Reagan-era Pentagon official who is now with the globalist-minded Council on Foreign Relations, stated, "This nation cannot deal effectively with the combination of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction in all places and every time through the unilateral use of U.S. military force." 

The General Accounting Office, in its assessment released in mid-August, warned that the Pentagon's "current mission approach is significantly stressing U.S. forces." If changes are not made, the report said, U.S. troops may be operating at an "unsustainable pace that could significantly erode their readiness to perform combat missions and impact future personnel retention." In addition, according to a September 3rd report by the Congressional Budget Office, under its current troop-rotation plan, the Army must begin reducing the number of troops in Iraq next March. The report concluded that by the end of 2004, even supplemented by Army National Guard units, only 28,000 to 64,000 U.S. combat troops will be available for deployment in Iraq. 

Today, almost six months after our military victory over the Iraq Army, nearly 200,000 US military reservists remain mobilized. This unprecedented mobilization of the reserves represents an attempt to help ameliorate the increasing imbalance between the seemingly innumerable, overexpansive UN peacemaking and empire-building missions now assigned to our badly overextended active-duty Army and the limited number of troops available to allot to those missions. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) describes this force mismatch as leaving the Army in a “near crisis” situation. The current unprecedented level of reserve mobilization has caused Lt. Gen. James Helmly, who commands the US Army Reserves, to exclaim that the Reserves are “on a war footing.” Active-duty and Reserve commanders fear that when U.S. soldiers on yearlong rotations come home next year, many will choose to leave the service.

Accordingly, the time has come for the Administration to implement major changes in its policy which will take this inevitable reduction of US forces in Iraq into account. Doing so will require that the current objectives of the US occupation force be toned down to a more achievable level -- a level which excludes day-to-day internal security and police keeping functions. It will require that US ground troops be kept out of the cities and confined to a few strategically located desert bases where they will be well positioned to act as a hedge to be called upon if a new Iraqi leader takes power who is viewed as hostile to the United States and its interests. There is some evidence that many US leaders are beginning to realize this. Unfortunately, the realization is occurring almost exclusively among US military commanders on the ground charged with implementing untenable policy objectives who have first-hand experience and knowledge about what the Administration is doing right and what it is doing wrong in Iraq. Senior US policymakers in the Bush Administration have been very slow to adapt their policy to fit changing circumstances and have done their best to avoid implementing a more realist policy in Iraq. Short of mobilizing the entire Army Reserves and National Guard, the Administration will be forced to implement these major revisions to its current Iraq stabilization strategy no later than next year. The sooner they do, the fewer of our soldiers' lives will be lost over the ongoing unnecessary, no-win war being fought in Iraq.

David T. Pyne, Esq. is President of the Center for the National Security Interest, a national security think-tank based in Arlington, VA.

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