Lowry is Wrong

The U.S. could throw everything into Iraq, but only by endangering the all-volunteer Army and American national security.

In an effort to defend his proposal to increase U.S. troop levels in Baghdad, Lowry responded to an oped by Lawrence Korb and Peter Ogden in The Washington Post, insisting that we still can send more troops to Baghdad.

Lowry does have a point. Yes, maybe in theory the United States could throw everything including the kitchen sink at Iraq to increase troop levels. But to do so with the false hope that increased troop levels would solve the brutal sectarian conflict and intractable sectarian political stalemate would only endanger the all-volunteer Army, and therefore our national security (for more on the state of the military see our article in TNR). So even if we theoretically could send more troops, in reality we can’t.

There are a number of points that Lowry overlooks:

First, in evaluating Lowry and Kristol’s recommendation for troop increases, what must be understood is that any increase must be a sustained increase – not a brief uptick in troop levels. This is because, and as Kristol and Lowry discuss, fluctuating troop levels in and out of theater only serves to enable insurgents to return after we drawdown. Therefore when Lowry hailed the December uptick increase in troop levels to 160,000 as an example of how it is possible to increase troop levels, what he didn’t mention was that troop levels were quickly brought down again. So any increase in troop levels would have to be a sustained increase in order to achieve the stability that Lowry and Kristol (erroneously) claim will result. This is an important point because it is the sustaining of elevated troop levels that would potentially break the all-volunteer military given the equipment shortages and the difficulty in recruiting and retention.

Second, even this temporary increase in troops in Baghdad was made possible by extending the tour of the 172nd Stryker brigade for three months beyond its agreed term of one year. According to Newsweek, as a result of this broken promise, the soldiers’ “families are falling apart.”

Third, Lowry does not acknowledge the fact that we have only been able to maintain the current levels through a backdoor draft, by instituting “stop loss” for over 50,000 soldiers and Marines (keeping these people for as long as 18 months beyond their agreed-upon enlistments) and involuntarily recalling almost 10,000 people from the Individual Ready Reserve (soldiers and Marines who have completed their agreed-upon active service commitment but still have time left on their military obligation).

Fourth, Lowry doesn’t grasp the combat readiness problem. The facts are not in dispute. The military has almost zero combat-ready forces outside of Iraq and the military is running out of equipment. Yet Lowry writes:

In particular, units that have just rotated out of Iraq this summer are inevitably rated “not ready.” But that is not to say that no brigades could be gotten ready fairly quickly to go to Iraq or elsewhere.

Lowry is wrong regarding his claim that additional brigades could not be gotten ready fairly quickly. Why? Because much of their equipment has been left in Iraq. The equipment shortages facing the Army and the Marines are directly related to the erosion of combat readiness. This is because much of the equipment that non-deployed units would otherwise use for training has been sent to Iraq to replace damaged or destroyed equipment. Additionally, many units that rotate home from Iraq are leaving their equipment behind for the units that take their place. The troops come home, but their tanks stay in Iraq.

Increasing the number of troops deployed to Iraq therefore demands finding more equipment with which to supply them. And achieving this would either require further depletion of equipment stocks from units not deployed to Iraq or sending ill-equipped units into combat in Iraq (a scary proposition).

Moreover, depleting the National Guard and the strategic equipment reserves (or, depending on the scope of the increase, transferring equipment from forces in Korea and Japan) would only further undermine our ability to respond elsewhere. This is dangerous because, as Daniel Benjamin and Michele Flournoy point out, “This is a moment to have some muscle to flex.”

Fifth, Lowry ignores the strain he would be putting on the men and women in uniform. That our soldiers and Marines are “amazing” does not mean that they can or should be sent to war ill-equipped for combat. But again, Lowry really misses the point. Putting further strain on the ground forces will only worsen the current recruiting crisis. An Army that cannot get enough qualified recruits nor persuade the right people in its current force to re-enlist is clearly in trouble.

Sixth, Lowry advocates that sending more troops to Iraq would be a hardship, but guesses that they would want to go back. Well he is guessing wrong. According to a poll conducted by Zogby International in early 2006, 72 percent of the troops in Iraq want to see the U.S. exit Iraq by the end of the year.

Finally, Lowry says that he looks “forward to the Center for American Progress vigorously making the case for a larger military.” We already have (see our progressive defense strategy). And we would appreciate the National Review doing the same.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow