An Army under strain

January 23, 2004

LT. GEN. John M. Riggs was right when he told The Sun's Tom Bowman that the Army is too small for the job it is being entrusted with. But before building a bigger Army, it would be a better idea first to re-examine that job.

General Riggs is in charge of creating an Army for the future, and he is bucking his boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in calling for an expanded force. Mr. Rumsfeld envisions a lean, high-tech Army; General Riggs, with Iraq on his mind, is thinking about more boots on the ground. It's not hard to grasp his point: Eight of the Army's 10 active-duty divisions are now rotating in and out of Iraq, one-third of the Army's 480,000 regular soldiers are stationed overseas, and the Army Reserve is facing the loss of significant numbers of troops who are unhappy with their unexpectedly long deployment.

Mr. Rumsfeld says the current strain on the Army is a "spike"; General Riggs looks at unrest in Iraq and sees a "plateau."

It's an interesting argument, but there's a more fundamental question: What is the Army's proper role?

President Bush says the United States is at war with terror. A country at war must have an army. But what is terror, and how can it be fought?

America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by al-Qaida - clearly, a terrorist organization. Within just a little more than two months, the United States had overthrown its Taliban sponsors and had al-Qaida itself on the run. But the Bush administration expanded its list of enemies to include all terrorist organizations, and then lumped "rogue states" into the mix as well. What began as a strike against the perpetrators of 9/11 was transformed into a global struggle with many different kinds of foes. Clarity - of tactics and of objectives - was lost. Yesterday, Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested that the war on terror should also include an assault against government corruption worldwide.

This is too much. Al-Qaida still has not been beaten - and beating it will require great intelligence and covert action and outstanding police work, but not a huge number of soldiers. It is time for America to focus on terrorists who have the means and the desire to strike at American targets. In place of an expanded military to fight new battles abroad, it is much more important to devote badly needed resources to plug the huge gaps in domestic security, as the Conference of Mayors pointed out yesterday.

Rogue regimes are susceptible to deterrence; they don't need to be conquered. Occupation of defeated countries is a debilitating drain on the occupier; see Iraq.

A bigger Army will be needed if the United States indulges in more military adventures abroad. But invasions and wars are a dangerous distraction from the real task at hand, which begins with al-Qaida. The garrisoning of Iraq, from which extraction will be difficult, is a challenge; the answer is to reach out to other nations to create a truly international force there.

Change policy, in other words. Don't change the Army.

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