Earlier this week, in a Washington Post op-ed, William Kristol and Rich Lowry called on the Bush administration to send more troops to Iraq. Coming one day before 62 Iraqis turned up tortured and shot in Baghdad and a couple of dozen more were blown up by car bombs, their argument that more American boots on the ground are necessary—though not sufficient—to halt the bloodbath has a compelling logic, even for many who think the war was a mistake. It isn’t clear that any conceivable increase in troops could stem the tide of sectarian violence, but it is, at least, a serious argument and a welcome counterpoint to the White House’s incessant calls for staying a course that is leading to disaster.
The only problem with Kristol and Lowry’s recommendation is that it is premised on an illusion: In fact, there are no more troops to send to Iraq.
That is the unmistakable message of an Army briefing making the rounds in Washington. According to in-house assessments, fully two-thirds of the Army’s operating force, both active and reserve, is now reporting in as “unready”—that is, they lack the equipment, people, or training they need to execute their assigned missions. Not a single one of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams—its core fighting units—currently in the United States is ready to deploy. In short, the Army has no strategic reserve to speak of. The other key U.S. fighting force in Iraq, the Marine Corps, is also hurting, with much of its equipment badly in need of repair or replacement.
In terms of ground-force readiness, the United States is in worse shape than at any time since the aftermath of Vietnam, when revelations about a “hollow” military sparked defense buildups from the Carter and then Reagan administrations. While most press coverage of the Iraq conflict has understandably focused on loss of life and the damage done in that country by the insurgency, the readiness of the U.S. military has also been a casualty.
From early on, military experts said that with roughly 140,000 troops in Iraq, the existing Army and Marine Corps was sufficient to prosecute the war for a couple of rotations after the invasion but that the force would need to be supplemented to sustain a longer war. Now those rotations have come and gone, and many units are on their second and even third tours in Iraq. Many active-duty soldiers and Marines are doing near back-to-back deployments, often with less than a year at home. This relentless tempo of operations, combined with the public’s doubts about the war, has hurt the military’s recruiting efforts and may contribute to higher than expected numbers of officers and enlisted personnel leaving the service in the future. Had President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld heeded early calls from Congress and experts from the center and the right to grow the size of the Army and Marine Corps, the current strains on the force could have been avoided.
Meanwhile, the military is also cannibalizing its equipment stocks. Given the harsh physical environment in Iraq and the high tempo of operations there, weapons, vehicles, and other equipment have been breaking down and wearing out at a rapid rate. So, the military has had to pillage from nondeploying units, the National Guard, and forward-deployed stocks around the world that are meant to be available in case of a crisis. Based on information from the Pentagon and estimates by analysts such as former Reagan Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, the costs of restoring destroyed and damaged Army and Marine Corps equipment is now estimated to be close to $30 billion, and it will grow by an additional $14 billion for every additional year we stay in Iraq. Even if these funds were available tomorrow, it would take years to restore the forces to the state they were in at the outset of the conflict.
For Iraq, the implications are clear. Without additional combat troops, it is simply not true, as Kristol and Lowry contend, that “the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control.” This might have been true two years ago, when the insurgency was just beginning to grow and Secretary Rumsfeld was resisting calls to send in more troops because it would have undermined his case for military “transformation.”
It is not the case now: Instead, Washington’s aim is essentially to avoid the humiliation of withdrawal and to minimize the possibility of creating a bigger vacuum that will suck Iraq’s neighbors into a regional conflict. One clear consequence of this, as the Washington Post suggested earlier this week, is that Anbar province, the vast Sunni territory in western Iraq where the insurgency has its deepest roots, has been lost. As the Post paraphrased the Marine Corps chief of intelligence for Iraq: “al-Qaeda has become the province’s most significant political force.” In other words, the prediction some began making a year ago—that Anbar would become a new and enduring sanctuary for al-Qaida—has come true.
The military-readiness crisis extends beyond Iraq. With North Korea testing long-range missiles—and possessing a lot more fissile material to load aboard them—and Iran working on uranium enrichment for a nuclear bomb, this is a moment to have some muscle to flex. Although most scenarios involving military action against Iran’s nuclear capabilities emphasize air and missile power, most North Korean scenarios envision substantial commitments of U.S. ground forces in support of our South Korean ally. And right now, the United States does not have the troops to deploy.
One remarkable aspect of the current disarray is how the administration has refused to face up to the problem. The military’s funding requests to improve readiness were reduced by the Office of the Secretary of Defense when the Pentagon was putting together its budget request because of the costs of operations in Iraq and, to a much lesser degree, in Afghanistan. (Those costs are the major reason why the current national defense spending of $562 billion is higher in dollar terms than in any other year since World War II except 1952, the height of the Korean War buildup.) On top of that, the Office of Management and Budget cut nearly $5 billion more from the budget submission that emerged from the Pentagon.
The war in Iraq is often said to be Bush’s signature issue, but it certainly is not his foremost priority—keeping tax rates down is trumping the needs of the military, even at a time of war. Whatever else one wants to say about the president and his Iraq policy, he cannot be accused of fighting to win or of giving U.S. soldiers and Marines the wherewithal to do so.