Refill the tanks

May 23, 2004|By Lawrence J. Korb

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration sent the Army into Iraq to destroy the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein and save the Iraqi people. Soldier for soldier, this was the most capable and ready force this nation has ever fielded.

But because of how the administration handled the war and its aftermath, it may end up undermining the effectiveness of the Army and jeopardizing our national security.

The Army is stretched very thin.

The Bush administration decided to remove Mr. Hussein in the fall of 2001, shortly after attacking Afghanistan and about 18 months before the invasion. Because it needed Army troops to wage the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida and meet Army commitments in the Balkans, the Sinai and Korea, the administration should have used that time to increase the size of the active Army from 10 to 13 divisions (up to 15,000 troops are in a division). It still resists adding them.

FOR THE RECORD - In "Refill the Tanks," a May 23 article by Lawrence J. Korb on the Opinion * Commentary page, the number of active duty Army combat brigades deployed to Iran and Afghanistan was misstated. The correct number is 15, according to the Army. The same article incorrectly named the Army Times among publications that have conducted surveys concluding that Army morale was suffering. An Army Times survey concluded that the morale among career military is high.

Instead, the administration decided to fight in Iraq on the cheap. Ignoring the advice of seasoned military professionals such as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki and the former chief of the Central Command, Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who told the administration that several hundred thousand troops would be needed, the administration dispatched only 130,000 troops to Iraq.

The administration compounded the problem by failing to provide the troops with guidance on what to do after the war or giving them the proper equipment to conduct an occupation. The troops were told they would be greeted as liberators, that their numbers would be cut to 30,000 by the end of the summer of 2003, that several nations would commit large numbers of troops and that much of the security in Iraq would be handled by the Iraqi army and police forces, which would be left intact.

Because none of this rosy scenario has come true, the Army and the United States have suffered in a number of ways.

First, rather than coming home to a triumphant parade, as they did after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the invading troops were compelled to remain in Iraq for at least a year.

Second, the troops undertook missions for which they were not trained or equipped.

For example, when the Hussein regime fell, only 2 percent of the Army's Humvees were armored. This led to an unexpectedly high level of casualties. About 14 months after the invasion, nearly 800 American service personnel have been killed, more than 3,000 have been wounded, about 18,000 have been evacuated from the theater for medical reasons and more than 30 have committed suicide. The Army estimates that one-fourth of those killed in combat in Iraq might be alive if they had stronger armor around them.

Third, many National Guard and Reserve units have been called up and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan on short notice with little or no training - the 800th Military Police Brigade in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison, for example. During the first year of occupation, about 20 percent of the troops were Guard and Reserve. This number has grown to 40 percent in the second year.

Fourth, many units, including Reserves, have been extended beyond the normal one-year tour, and several have been sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan before spending at least a year at home.

The 1st Armored Division, which was to return to Germany in March, has had its tour extended until June. This month, the 94th Military Police Company of the Army Reserve, which has been in Iraq for over a year and on active duty for 17 months, had its tour extended for three more months.

The Army is stretched so thin that it is withdrawing about 10 percent of the troops in Korea to send to Iraq and recalling some of the 17,000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve - soldiers who do not train with an organized unit and whose readiness is therefore suspect.

In addition, the overall readiness of the Army has suffered.

The four divisions that have just returned from Iraq will not be combat-ready for six months, and the Army has had to cancel nearly one-third of its scheduled training exercises in the last year. Nine of the Army's 10 divisions are either coming from or going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and 24 of its 33 combat brigades are in those two countries.

Surveys taken by the Army and military publications such as Stars and Stripes and the Army Times show that these developments are having a devastating impact on morale.

The "stop loss" policy, which was instituted over a year ago, prevents individuals from leaving the service from the time their unit is notified it will be deployed until 90 days after they return. Moreover, this year, the Navy has reduced its recruitment goals.

We are not yet at a point where we might have to withdraw the Army from Iraq in order to save it, but we are getting close. Just as Vietnam destroyed the draftee Army, Iraq could undermine the all-volunteer Army.

No wonder the Army War College says the Army is near its breaking point and retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom argues that, for the sake of our security, we should remove our forces from Iraq as quickly as possible.

To remedy the situation, the administration needs to add two active-duty divisions as soon as possible. Delay will place the Army and the country in danger.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.

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