War Stories

The Army’s Math Problem

We don’t have any more soldiers to send to Afghanistan unless we take some out of Iraq.

Robert Gates

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to send 7,000 more U.S. troops—about two brigades—to Afghanistan, according to the May 3 New York Times. But there’s a problem, which the story underplays: We don’t have any more troops to send. The Army is in a zero-sum state: No more soldiers can be sent to Afghanistan without a one-for-one reduction of soldiers in Iraq.

Let’s look at the numbers.

After the last of the five “surge” brigades goes home this summer, the U.S. Army will have 13 brigade combat teams in Iraq (the Marines have two more) and two in Afghanistan. One BCT serves as a “global response force,” ready to respond to a small-scale emergency elsewhere in the world. One is in Korea. One is dedicated to homeland defense and security. One, at a base in Fort Riley, Kan., is training soldiers to become advisers to Iraqi and Afghan security forces. That adds up to 19 BCTs. All the other Army brigades are either between deployments or in their 12-month downtime periods, having fulfilled their 12-to-15-month deployment tours. (For a little more detail on these numbers, click here.)

And that’s it. There are no more combat brigades left. To send one or two more brigades to Afghanistan would require taking one of five steps:

  • Extend combat tours from 12 months to 15 months. The Army already did this, during the surge. Starting this August, at senior officers’ insistence, soldiers will go back to serving 12-month tours. The longer tours have triggered great worry, at very high levels, that the Army was nearing the point of exhaustion and, without a letup, would soon break down. In short, Secretary Gates and the entire Army brass are adamantly opposed to renewing the 15-month combat tour.
  • Lengthen the Marines’ tours of duty. Marines are deployed for combat for just seven months at a time, but, as with the Army, there is no interest—either among senior officers or civilian officials—in extending them.
  • Mobilize the entire Guard and Reserves. No president has ever done this, including Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, because it would put thousands of untrained, ill-suited people into battle and trigger widespread revolt on the home front.
  • Sacrifice one of America’s other missions. In other words, pull the brigade out of South Korea or eliminate the global response force (thus leaving us with no ability to deal with any sudden contingencies in the near future) or forget about homeland defense (good luck selling that one). This option, too, is a nonstarter.
  • Pull one brigade out of Iraq for every brigade needed in Afghanistan.

This last option is the only one that’s at all practical. There is no way to put more boots in Afghanistan without taking boots out of Iraq. As one senior Army officer put it to me, having it both ways is, “in a word, impossible,” and anyone who thinks otherwise, he added, is “dreaming.” Gates, by the way, is not among the daydreamers. His press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in an e-mail today that Gates well knows that, fundamentally, “the only way he can add significant forces to Afghanistan, while keeping the President’s commitment to reduce tour-lengths, is to continue the drawdown of troops in Iraq.”

One might wonder: Couldn’t the Army just stage another surge? Here’s the thing, and this hasn’t been well-understood: The surge was always something of an artifice. The term suggests gathering up a bunch of extra troops—in this case, five brigades’ worth—and hurling them into Iraq. In fact, there were no extra troops. The surge involved accelerating the departure of brigades already scheduled to go to Iraq—and then keeping them there for 15 months instead of the customary 12. The Army had more troops on the ground, but only because the troops were there for a longer period of time.

These calculations do point up to a larger set of problems. The United States has the world’s most powerful military. This military consumes more money (adjusting for inflation) than it did at the height of the Cold War. Not counting the costs of the two wars, it spends as much on the military as the rest of the world’s countries combined. And yet, despite all this money and global reach, the U.S. Army finds itself unable to sustain more than 150,000 or so troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The next president has a lot more to mull over than whether to move a few brigades from Iraq to Afghanistan. It’s time—it’s urgent—to rethink the broad outlines of American foreign and military policy. If such a big budget buys so few combat brigades, should we restructure the armed forces? If we simply need more troops, how are we going to get them—through higher pay, more glittering benefits, a return to the draft? If we need to rely more on allies, what can we offer to get them onboard? Right now, there’s a mismatch between our imperial missions and our constricted forces. Either we have to expand our forces or cut back on our missions. To stay the course is to guarantee more stalemates, frustrations, and defeats.