When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast almost two years ago, at least 35 percent of the Louisiana National Guard was in Iraq. That meant that personnel and equipment—like radios, trucks, and helicopters—were unavailable for conducting relief operations. A confidential Pentagon report written soon after the disaster stated that, in addition to other government failures, “a major factor in the delayed response to the hurricane aftermath was that the bulk of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard was deployed in Iraq.”
Guardsmen provided security, food, and water at the New Orleans Superdome, evacuated residents, and established shelters. The extent of the damage that more in-state National Guard forces could have prevented is hard to estimate.
Hurricane Katrina intensified a dialogue that had already begun about the National Guard’s role in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Comptroller General David Walker testified before the House Committee on Government Reform on the Army National Guard’s alarming condition soon after Katrina hit, saying, “…the preparedness of non-deployed units for future missions is declining, and [the Department of Defense’s] strategy of transferring large numbers of equipment and personnel among units is showing signs of increased stress.”
Even in the face of a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, the Pentagon and the Department of Defense have not addressed the National Guard’s readiness crisis. Walker cited an estimate in his testimony that the Guard’s non-deployed units had only 34 percent of their essential war-fighting equipment as of July 2005. In September of 2006, the Government Accountability Office estimated that the Army National Guard had only 30 percent of essential equipment on-hand at home. And according to a recent Congressional Commission report, 88 percent of National Guard units have less than half of the equipment required to perform missions at home.
If another major natural or man-made disaster takes place on U.S. soil, it is unclear that the states have the capacity for an efficient, effective response.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced earlier this month that it may call up an additional 13,000 National Guard troops for duty abroad. The brigades—from Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma—would ship in December 2007 or early 2008.
These Guard units were originally expected to serve no more than 24 months total, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself suggesting five years at home for every year of deployment. But the brigades being deployed, who face another 12 months in combat, have already served 18 months. One of the Guard units, the Arkansas 39th Infantry and Brigade, spent 18 months in Iraq just two years ago.
In response to the earlier-than-expected mobilization, some governors are deeply frustrated and disappointed. In a letter to President Bush, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland wrote, “This is a significant departure from the commitment made to Ohio soldiers and their families, and I believe it to be a breach of faith.”
Making matters worse, while military policy caps National Guard and Reserve soldiers’ deployments at 12 months, it’s unclear that the Pentagon will stick to that rule. For example, 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard are expected home in July after serving 22 months—the longest deployment in National Guard history. Their duty was extended by 125 days in January as part of Bush’s escalation plan.
The abuse of the Guard is symptomatic of a larger problem. We are sending so many National Guard soldiers to Iraq because we are short on troops overall. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and former Reagan administration official Lawrence J. Korb pointed out before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 17 that the current use of the Guard is inappropriate: “If America ever found itself in a long protracted ground war, or was forced to act against an existential threat, the all-volunteer force was to act as a bridge to re-instating conscription. This is why we require young men to register when they turn 18.” The all-volunteer army was not designed for the war it is currently fighting.
Common sense suggests two options for addressing our military readiness crisis. We could reinstate the draft or change our strategy.
The second option is the correct one. As CAP has repeatedly suggested, we should set a firm timeline for the gradual redeployment of U.S. forces over the next 18 months. During that time, the United States should work to train and support Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government while gradually handing over responsibility for security to the Iraqis. This redeployment should be coupled with a diplomatic surge in which the United States should engage all the countries in the region.
Violence in Iraq has put 2007 on track to be one of the bloodiest years of the war. The “surge”—the third military escalation in Iraq in the past three years—has not shown the promise of stabilizing the region. Meanwhile, the Bush administration and the Pentagon have made plans to put even more troops in harm’s way.
The American public is feeling the fatigue of a war that has dragged on too long, with too many casualties and too few victories. Sending more of America’s committed servicemen away from their careers, homes, and families into a four-year-old conflict with no end sight is not the solution to our problems in Iraq. By continuing to rely on an all-volunteer army for a fight that requires more personnel than we have, we are abusing the commitment of our service members and endangering our national security by depleting our domestic military capabilities.