WASHINGTON -- With generals warning that long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the Army to the breaking point, President Bush is asking for plans to expand the military for a long war against terrorism, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The growth would reverse the course pursued by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary set out six years ago to restructure the nation's military forces and advocated cutting two divisions, or about 40,000 soldiers, from the Army.
Bush asked Robert M. Gates, who succeeded Rumsfeld on Monday, to prepare plans for a more muscular military, with the idea of incorporating the expansion in the 2008 budget request that the administration plans to send to Congress in early February. The president did not set specific troop numbers or costs for the expansion, said the official, who requested anonymity when discussing administration planning.
Countering talk that a beefed-up force would necessitate a draft, Army officials have said they believe at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year can be recruited through pay incentives.
"The president is inclined to believe we need to increase the overall size of the Army and the Marines," said the official, adding that "how big and how soon" would be up to Gates. "The genesis is his long-held belief the global war on terror is going to be a long one, and we're going to need a military capable of sustaining our effort."
Meanwhile, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to retire and will leave his post in March - a step likely to make way for a change in military strategy.
Abizaid has been the primary architect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan since becoming head of the U.S. Central Command more than three years ago. He has resisted calls to increase troop levels to quell rising violence in Baghdad, arguing it would increase Iraqi dependence on Americans.
But a growing number of current and former officers have embraced the idea, some of whom have briefed Bush as part of his monthlong review of Iraq policy.
The president revealed his plans for the military in an interview yesterday with The Washington Post. "I want to share one thought I had with you, and I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops, the Army, the Marines," Bush said in an opening statement. The newspaper posted a partial transcript of the president's comments on its Web site yesterday afternoon.
The president's order that Gates consider increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps occurs as Bush and his national security team are preparing a new approach to the war in Iraq.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday that one course Bush is considering is a "surge" in troops there. The temporary boost could last several months, with the additional numbers coming from an extension of current deployments and an early deployment of troops scheduled to serve there, putting further stress on the military.
About 140,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq. The surge could increase that total by 30,000, with troops sent to Baghdad and other hot spots of insurgency and sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Snow has said Bush will disclose his Iraq plans early next year.
The president said he was waiting to hear Gates' recommendations after the defense secretary completes a visit to Iraq.
"Gates wanted to get there and kick the tires, so to speak, before he made a recommendation to the president," the senior administration official said.
Adding more soldiers in Iraq next spring and summer would reduce the troops available in 2008 and 2009. But expanding the size of the military would allow newly created units to take the place of the additional units sent to Iraq in 2007 and would allow the military to maintain its force levels over the longer term.
Last week, Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker called for an increase in the size of the Army. Without expanding the active-duty military or relaxing restrictions on calling up reserves, Schoomaker said, the Army would have difficulty continuing its overseas deployments.
The prospect of a temporary boost in the U.S. military force in Iraq drew sharp criticism yesterday from the Democrats who will become chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.
"More troops would get us in deeper and is a military response to a political problem," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.
Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, said: "I don't know what the military mission would be. ... Is there something to go after that we don't know? I don't think it will change a thing."
Skelton, a longtime supporter of the military who is calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, said a boost in U.S. forces there could be counterproductive. "It could exacerbate the situation further," he said.
He added: "The time for a troop increase, larger troop increase, was about 3 1/2 years ago, when we initially went into Iraq."
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Trent Lott of Mississippi, several other members of Congress and former soldiers have embraced the idea of increasing troop numbers in Iraq.
Suggesting a split among some Democrats, however, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who is about to become the Senate majority leader, expressed some support for the idea. "If the commanders on the ground said this is just for a short period of time, we'll go along with that," Reid said Sunday on ABC's This Week.
Other senior Senate Democrats, including Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, have criticized the proposal.
James Gerstenzang and Noam N. Levey write for the Los Angeles Times.