The wrong calculus

Our view: Reduced combat tours won't bring relief

April 13, 2008

Gen. David Petraeus likes to talk about battlefield geometry. It's his turn of phrase for describing troop deployments in Iraq. The mathematical configuration is changing again, the size of U.S. ground forces shifting once more. But it's not soon enough for many American soldiers whose tours have left them scarred in ways seen and unseen and their families struggling to cope against tough odds.

A reduction in combat tours from 15 to 12 months was announced last week, as a gesture to replenish military readiness. It won't because the armed forces can't recruit enough people to make up for their losses. The decision was more of a cheap attempt to offset the more unsettling calculation presented by General Petraeus - a halt in troop withdrawals after July that will leave 10,000 more soldiers on the ground than there were before the surge.

President Bush has signed off on the Iraqi commander's assessment of what's needed to preserve the gains made since last summer. And the gains are measurable, with violence down and the threat of roadside bombs greatly diminished, some areas of Baghdad are reclaiming some semblance of normal life. But they can't be sustained without 140,000 U.S. troops.

Where the math really gets fuzzy is when the general was asked about a timetable for further withdrawals. He could offer none, only a pledge to begin reassessing troop needs 45 days after the last troop withdrawal in July.

At least Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were candid about the impact of the reduction in active-duty combat tours - it won't provide the relief to families or the military at large that their present fatigue demands. An Army survey of noncommissioned officers who have served more than two tours of duty found that 27 percent showed symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorders. That's an increase from the norm of 18 percent of deployed soldiers.

The Bush administration's battlefield geometry promises no end to the Iraqi struggle, only to sustain the limited accomplishments of the surge at an indefensible cost in lost and damaged American lives.

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