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Why We Can’t Send More Troops

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In “Reinforce Baghdad” [op-ed, Sept. 12], William Kristol and Rich Lowry argue that the United States needs to deploy “substantially” more troops to Iraq to stabilize the country. Aside from the strategic dubiousness of their proposal — Kristol and Lowry’s piece might alternatively have been titled “Reinforcing Failure” — there is a practical obstacle to it that they overlook: Sending more troops to Iraq would, at the moment, threaten to break our nation’s all-volunteer Army and undermine our national security. This is not a risk our country can afford to take.

In their search for additional troops and equipment for Iraq, the first place that Kristol and Lowry would have to look is the active Army. But even at existing deployment levels, the signs of strain on the active Army are evident. In July an official report revealed that two-thirds of the active U.S. Army was classified as “not ready for combat.” When one combines this news with the fact that roughly one-third of the active Army is deployed (and thus presumably ready for combat), the math is simple but the answer alarming: The active Army has close to zero combat-ready brigades in reserve.

The second place to seek new troops and equipment is the Army National Guard and Reserve. But the news here is, if anything, worse. When asked by reporters to comment on the strain that the active Army was under, the head of the National Guard said that his military branch was “in an even more dire situation than the active Army. We both have the same symptoms; I just have a higher fever.”

Already, the stress of Iraq and Afghanistan on our soldiers has been significant: Every available active-duty combat brigade has served at least one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many have served two or three. Likewise, the vast majority of Army National Guardsmen and Reservists have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, some more than once.

Thus the simple fact is that the only way for Kristol and Lowry to put their new plan into action anytime soon without resorting to a draft — and thereby dismantling the all-volunteer Army, which, as the authors themselves would certainly admit, could be strategically disastrous — is by demanding even more from our soldiers by accelerating their training and rotation schedules. While there is no question that the soldiers would respond to more frequent calls to duty, it is doubtful that they would be supplied with proper equipment and training for their mission in the near term. Moreover, the long-term toll on the cost and quality of our troops would be threatened by the added strain.

First, the equipment shortage that the U.S. Army faces at the moment is making it difficult to train troops even at current levels. The service has been compensating for this $50 billion equipment shortfall by shipping to Iraq some of the equipment that it needs to train nondeployed and reserve units. Increasing the number of deployed troops would compound this readiness problem and leave the Army with little spare capacity to respond to other conflicts around the globe that might demand immediate and urgent action.

Second, the long-term costs of leaning even more heavily on our ground troops to fight what is an unpopular war will take its toll on the quality of our Army. At present the Army is compelled to offer promotions to an unprecedented number of its personnel to retain them. Some 98 percent of captains were promoted to major this year, and the quality of the next generation of military leaders will suffer if this process is not made more selective once again.

In addition, even the quadrupling of recruitment bonuses since 2003 has not been enough to attract adequate numbers of talented men and women to meet the Army’s personnel goals. Although the Army has accepted more troops with lower aptitude scores and raised its maximum enlistment age, it still must grant waivers to about 1 out of 5 new recruits and has had to cut in half the number who “wash out” in basic training.

While we disagree with Kristol and Lowry’s contention that sending more troops to Iraq would bring peace and stability to the country, the U.S. Army and National Guard and Reserve should nevertheless possess the capacity to respond to such a plan or other deployments without undue strain and long-term costs. The solution is to do two things that the Bush administration has not: permanently increase the number of troops in the active Army and fully fund its equipment needs. Let this, not the expenditure of more blood and treasure in Iraq, be the “courageous act of presidential leadership” that Kristol and Lowry desire.

This was article was reprinted with permission from The Washington Post.

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