At the breaking point

The Bush administration's unrealistic war planning has increased the dangers facing the men and women on the ground in Iraq.

Topics: Terrorism, Iraq war, Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld,

At the breaking point

The U.S. Army faces a gathering threat that is more dangerous to its long-run capability than Saddam Hussein ever was. That danger, according to military strategists, lies in a foreign and military policy that is stretching the force to the breaking point, leaving it unable to execute its mission. The latest assaults on U.S. forces in Fallujah and Najaf starkly illustrate the problems facing U.S. troops, who are still trying to maintain control over Iraq almost a year after President Bush declared major combat operations over. Military commanders on the ground in Iraq describe the situation they face as all bad choices.

Throughout his presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush beat the drum against the Clinton administration for misusing and abusing the armed forces. “This administration wants things both ways: to command great forces, without supporting them, [and] to launch today’s new causes with little thought of tomorrow’s consequences,” he declared in his first major national security speech, at the Citadel military academy in September 1999.

Bush was taking a swipe (without being specific) at Clinton administration forays into nation building and peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo. In both cases, the United States organized large international coalitions of its allies, went in with overwhelming power, lost not a single U.S. serviceman or -woman and maintained big forces on the ground to prevent conflict and begin reconstruction. But, in retrospect, Bush’s complaint seems to have more to do with scale than mission: The Clintonites were pikers compared with the Bushies when it comes to stretching the military.

Under the rubric of the war on terrorism, the U.S. armed forces are now conducting operations in more countries around the world than at any time since World War II, though in sheer numbers the current force of 10 active divisions is dwarfed by the 90 divisions of the earlier force. The Bush administration’s policies have created unsustainable and dangerous conditions in the U.S. Army, according to military experts, retired officers and a growing number of elected officials from both parties. The administration’s insistence on doing more with less has left the military unable to secure Iraq, triggering a ripple effect that threatens the morale of active and reserve members of the Army, retention, training schedules and, not incidentally, American lives. While some of the underlying issues predate this administration, they have been exacerbated by the decision to wage a war of choice in Iraq and critically bad judgments on how that war’s aftermath would play out.



“What we’re seeing is a repeat of the McNamara era,” warned Paul Van Riper, a retired three-star Marine general who was in the corps long enough to remember that time. “We’re seeing a leadership that is arrogant, is unwilling to listen to military advice. They thought they had the answer, [but] they fundamentally didn’t understand war. It was war as they wanted it to be, not as it exists in the hard realm of reality.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was determined that Iraq would not be your father’s (that is, Bush’s father’s) Gulf War. The U.S. and British march to Baghdad seemed the model of the kind of “transformation” that Rumsfeld had been advocating as the force of the future, with air dominance, ground speed and information superiority producing battlefield supremacy. And for a few weeks during the invasion last year, the Iraq war was as the Bush team wished it to be.

But if the plan of battle was long on style, the follow-on was short on substance. “The difficulties we face in Iraq now began more than a year ago, and they began because we have an arrogant, unprofessional, unschooled senior leadership in the Pentagon,” Van Riper says. “They believed that modern technology and some of their very weak operating concepts and unrealistic expectations of what the Iraqi people would do [would] let them go in on the cheap with ground forces.” He adds: “If you think I’m emotional about it, and I am, it’s because soldiers and Marines are dying today because of their incompetence.”

These problems were predictable and were in fact predicted. Three weeks before U.S. soldiers poured across the Iraq-Kuwait border, then Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient in Vietnam, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that because of Iraq’s size and ethnic makeup, any occupying force would require “on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” Shinseki was speaking from experience, having commanded NATO forces in Bosnia from 1997 to 1999.

The Pentagon’s civilian leadership responded with speed and force — against Shinseki. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the House Budget Committee that Shinseki’s estimate was “wildly off the mark.” Having rejected Shinseki’s estimate — not his alone but the work of the Army’s top planners — Wolfowitz laid out a different scenario. Iraqis would greet allied forces as “liberators … That will help us to keep requirements down.” Rumsfeld gave a similar formulation to reporters: “The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark,” he said.

The open undermining of the Army’s chief of staff is illustrative of Rumsfeld’s relations with him and other Army leaders, which were strained to the point that some active and former top Army officials grumbled that the secretary of defense was at war with the Army. In mid-2002, Rumsfeld’s office leaked the name of his nominee to replace Shinseki — 14 months before the chief’s tenure was to end. When Shinseki did leave as scheduled in June 2003, no one from the Office of the Secretary of Defense attended his retirement ceremony. If they had, they would have heard his farewell warning: “Beware the 12-division strategy for the 10-division Army.”

But Shinseki was not alone in his Iraq forecasts. He had history on his side. Traditionally, as Rand Corp. military scholar James Quinlivan noted in the summer of 2003, “successful strategies for population security and control have required force ratios either as large as or larger than 20 security personnel (troops and police combined) per thousand inhabitants.” That would compute to about 480,000 troops in 23 million-strong Iraq.

In 1996, the United States and its allies sent a force of 60,000 into Bosnia, which had 2.6 million people. And Iraq “isn’t just a larger Bosnia, it’s Bosnia logarithmically complicated,” says Stephen Cimbala, an expert on the military at the University of Pennsylvania.

Also predictable — and predicted — was the fact that Iraqis would react with something less than jubilation and docility to their “liberators.” In April 2002, the State Department began working on a “Future of Iraq Project,” which warned of widespread looting and violent resistance. But the Pentagon ignored the predictions.

Indeed, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the House Armed Services Committee last November that postwar planning at the Pentagon was delayed for fear that it might indicate that the most telegraphed punch in military history was indeed coming. “We did not want to do anything that would prejudge or somehow preordain that there was definitely going to be a war,” Pace told the committee, presumably with a straight face. (Of course, we now know that this consideration did not prevent the planning for the war itself from starting in late 2001.)

While the swift battle proved that a smaller force could quickly conquer, the aftermath showed that some missions still require sheer manpower. “In a current force or transformed force, it doesn’t take much to seize ground, to seize key terrain,” says Dan Goure, a former Defense Department official who worked on Bush’s defense transition team and is now a senior analyst at the libertarian Lexington Institute. “It still takes a lot of people to occupy. And we are in an occupation, and figure to be in an occupation for a long time.”

Van Riper and his fellow critics argue that a larger U.S. force could have provided security for average Iraqis more quickly and secured the Sunni Triangle. “What they weren’t able to do was capitalize on that success,” Van Riper says. “This is operations and tactics 101. You need to be able to exploit success and you need a reserve.”

Shinseki, in a rare public appearance at the University of Georgia on April 16, recalled his experiences dealing with similar situations in Bosnia. Faced with guerrilla resistance, he said, he went on the offensive both militarily and in other areas such as humanitarian assistance, infrastructure repair and engaging the leaders of the different ethnic groups. “These activities were designed to put our unknown adversaries, unseen adversaries, on the back foot, denying them freedom to act,” he said. “To generate this kind of offensive action takes people. [It] takes people both in numbers and a wide range of skills and capabilities to enable us to have at least one more option than our adversary.”

But Rumsfeld prevailed in the planning for the war and its aftermath. And it was his belief that more from less would work as well with the occupation as it did with the military conquest. His faith was bolstered by neoconservatives’ insistence that the U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators; that once Saddam was toppled a democratic Iraq would immediately take its place; and that the allied troops and newly minted Iraqi security forces would bear their share of the burden.

The strategy went awry from the start, however, as Iraqis looted government offices unprotected by U.S. troops. Private militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army were left to instill a sense of order in Baghdad. As images of the chaos in the city reached international audiences, Rumsfeld dismissed public concerns, saying, “Freedom is untidy.”

But the concerns were legitimate. Speaking at the University of Georgia, Shinseki said that for troops trying to keep peace in a country after a war, there is a “footrace” to establish a safe and secure environment before someone else fills the power vacuum.

“You have a finite period of time [after] the end of major hostilities in which you have to take control, to protect the population because there are lots of others who will fill that void; and if you don’t do it, others will step in, and you have to contend with them,” he said. “How well that was linked to the military phase I think is what we’re facing today. [It was] obviously not as well linked as we would like and perhaps not linked at all.”

The looting eventually faded, but it was emblematic of deeper problems in store for the United States and its allies. With an insufficient number of troops in country, Iraqi opposition — hard-line Baathists, disaffected youth without employment or other prospects and Islamic jihadists slipping across porous borders — was able to rally and grow.

“That invasion was mounted on the belief by the Department of Defense and the secretary of defense in particular that the United States could fight a lightning war and get out before the repercussions of that war were felt. Well, clearly that wasn’t the case,” says Bob Killebrew, a retired Army colonel who writes and lectures on military issues. “The low strength in Iraq has given the bad guys the breathing space they needed to mount the kinds of challenges we face today.”

On April 15, Rumsfeld admitted that the administration had miscalculated how the occupation would play out: “If you had said to me a year ago, ‘Describe the situation you’ll be in today one year later,’ I don’t know many people who would have described it — I would not have — described it the way it happens to be today.”

Of course, as a practical matter, admitting that occupying Iraq would have required much larger numbers of troops would have crippled Bush’s drive to war. Military theory holds that for every operation, the Army should have three units: one preparing to deploy to the operation, one executing it and one recovering from it. With active and reserve components taken together, the U.S. Army is a little over a million strong. An occupation force of several hundred thousand would have required the entire Army.

Even with an occupation force between 100,000 and 135,000, the Army is being pushed to the breaking point. “When a military force is wholly committed to a fight and can’t maneuver or can’t withdraw or can’t add any more force to the fight, we say they are decisively engaged,” says Killebrew. “The United States is close to being decisively engaged in Iraq, unless we call up more troops.”

How bad is it? This week, the Associated Press noted that all or parts of nine of the Armys 10 active divisions are either in Iraq or have just returned from a 12-month stint there. The sole exception is the 3rd Infantry Division that led the charge from Kuwait to Baghdad, which has already been warned that it may have to return as soon as November.

“There’s never been anything close to this much demand on the all-volunteer military in its 30-year history,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. “Even in wartime, with conscription, we didn’t send people overseas on two tours of duty. Certainly in Vietnam, if you did your one tour, you were done.”

The 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii as a backup to forces in Korea, has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Already, 40 percent of the troops in Iraq are reserves who have been called from their civilian lives to spend a year, minimum, in Iraq, a percentage that is not likely to change in coming years.

A study by the Congressional Budget Office released last November found that without significant Reserve call-ups, “the active Army would be unable to sustain an occupation force of the present size [150,000] beyond March 2004 if it chose not to keep individual units deployed to Iraq for longer than one year without relief.” The CBO estimated that the active Army could sustain between 38,000 and 64,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely with help from Reserve support units.

The problem is aggravated by the Army’s structure: The same small percentage of specialized reservists — military police and civil affairs specialists — gets called upon more frequently than other reservists. And despite assurances that duty in Iraq would be capped at no more than a year at a time, commanders recently informed 20,000 soldiers that their stay would be extended by three months, possibly as many as four. While the Pentagon had hoped to lower the level of occupying troops from around 135,000 to around 100,000, part of that plan was predicated on handing off more responsibility to new Iraqi security forces, units that have not proved reliable in taking on their own countrymen.

“We used to talk about ‘operational tempo,’ in the sense of how hard is it to do the normal pace-time training cycles — for example, for all the Army’s brigades, if we had to have two or three deployed over in the Balkans, and what effect does that have on our ability to engage in this or that scenario,” says Owen Cote of MIT’s Security Studies Program. “Now the entire active and reserve Army exists solely … to sustain this occupation of Iraq. There essentially is no ‘op-tempo’ outside of Iraq. The Army can’t do anything else right now, except under really extreme circumstances.”

The extraordinary strain being placed on the Army in both morale and physical wear and tear — as well as the need to bring units back to Iraq — creates a ripple effect that threatens training and maintenance.

“You can expect over time a slow erosion of U.S. power,” Killebrew says. “It will be because we lose the ability to train and maintain the force that we have [in Iraq] now. People wear out and so does equipment. And it’s wearing out now.”

The result has been unusually long deployments for active and reserve soldiers alike. These deployments — and the Pentagon’s inability to give soldiers a reliable date on which they can count on seeing their family — have badly corroded morale both at home and on the front lines.

It is a situation that threatens to break the all-volunteer Army. “What’s going to happen is, people aren’t going to reenlist in the numbers that you would like,” says Lawrence Korb, a Reagan-era defense official who is now a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. While studies by the Rand Corp. have shown a correlation between deployment and increased retention, those same studies also indicate that repeated tours diminish the effect, eventually turning it negative.

Rumsfeld and his team are quick to point out that retention remains basically strong. But there are signs of slippage: Last fiscal year the U.S. Army Reserve didn’t meet its retention goals. And USA Today reported that through the first half of this fiscal year, the active Army is on a pace to come up short of its retention goal.

Even allies of Rumsfeld admit that the current retention figures are distorted because the Pentagon has made liberal use of “stop-loss,” a power that lets it prevent troops from leaving the service when their time is up.

Indeed, a wealth of recent anecdotal and statistical information suggests serious problems for the Army. A survey last summer by the Army Surgeon General’s Office found that 52 percent of soldiers reported low personal morale and 72 percent reported that their unit had low morale. The survey also found that unit cohesion was low. “The most important reported deployment stressors included uncertain redeployment date, long deployment, separation and lack of communication with family,” the Operation Iraqi Freedom Mental Health Advisory Team reported last month. “These operational stressors were significantly correlated with low morale, low cohesion and behavioral health problems.” The Pentagon’s decision to hold 20,000 troops in Iraq for an additional three months can only have intensified these conditions.

A separate survey of military families conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that fully half of military spouses predicted “major retention problems” in the Army.

“The family members that I’ve talked to basically have said that when Tom, Dick or Mary comes out, they’re going to stay out,” says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “The high personnel tempo, the high ‘op-tempo’ alone, is grinding down the military. The fact that we are breaking our promises, the fact that we are not being straight with people, naturally is going to cause problems not only with recruiting but with retention.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed the same fears at a hearing in which he questioned Rumsfeld in February: “From my conversations with the Guard and reservists around the country, you are going to see a very large exodus of the members of the Guard and Reserve because of the incredible deployment and a burden that has been laid upon them.”

One solution that Tauscher and others favor is to increase the size of the U.S. Army, relieving the stress on existing troops by spreading the burden.

“Ten divisions is a very small force for a nation of 300 million people,” says Robert Scales, a retired two-star Army general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. “For a great power, that’s probably the smallest percentage of infantry in the history of the world, including the Romans. The Roman Empire had more infantry than the U.S.”

At least one prominent member of the Bush administration agrees. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former naval officer, told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that he feared that the Army is too small for the Bush administration’s grandiose agenda. “Though [Armitage] believed they would put down the insurgency [in Iraq] and win in the end, the U.S. military was going to pay for ten years or more. The Army, in particular, was stretched too thin,” Woodward writes in his new book, “Plan of Attack.” “They were fighting three wars really — Afghanistan still, Iraq and the continuing global war on terrorism. It was not logical nor was it possible, in Armitage’s view, that this could be accomplished with a force of the same size that existed during the Clinton administration in peace time. But that was what the Bush administration was attempting.”

In the wake of the Cold War, the United States cut the size of the military from 18 active divisions to 10. (Each division has roughly 15,000 to 18,000 troops.) When Rumsfeld came into office, it was widely rumored that he wanted to cut two more divisions. Instead, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s fighting a losing battle to avoid permanently expanding the size of the military.

At the end of January, Rumsfeld conceded to his critics by approving an emergency increase in the size of the active U.S. Army of 30,000 troops above its congressionally approved limit of 482,000. In theory, the increase will last four years while the Army reorganizes.

Fundamentally, the Army is still structured in a Cold War mold, though in a trimmed-down version. It moves in division-size units suitable for facing Soviet divisions but less useful in a world where speed is salient. The Army also has an outdated mix of units: too much artillery, easily replaced with air power, and not enough civil affairs or infantry personnel.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, a former head of the U.S. Special Operation Command whom Rumsfeld pulled out of retirement to replace Shinseki, wants to make the brigade, which typically has 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, the Army’s main unit of action. Schoomaker is in the process of remixing the kinds of units the Army has in its active and reserve forces. Under his plan, the Army will go from 33 brigades to 48. At the end of the four years, the Army will revert to its limit of 482,000 active troops, but will remain at 48 brigades through the magic of eliminating unnecessary positions.

These moves are widely applauded by military experts who see the reorganization as a long-overdue reform. But many experts believe they do not go far enough in addressing the underlying issue of the need for more troops.

John Grady, spokesman for the Association of the U.S. Army, the Army’s civilian lobby, called the moves “a good first step” but said “the continuing commitments of the Army worldwide speak to the need of the Army having to have another 30,000 to 40,000 permanently.”

That is a notion that Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration absolutely resist. Why? Because they want their toys.

“If we permanently increase statutory end strength, we’ll have to take the cost out of the DOD top line,” Rumsfeld testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February. “That will require cuts in other parts of the defense budget, crowding out investments and the programs that will allow us to manage the force better and to make it more capable.”

The Pentagon’s budget has increased from $312 billion at the end of the Clinton administration to $469 billion in the past fiscal year (including various supplemental spending bills passed by Congress), according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, but the money’s going to machines, not men.

“The real question is: What business is the U.S. military in?” says the Lexington Institute’s Goure. “Is it in the war-winning business and counterterrorism and preemption and all those things? Is it in the occupation and nation-building business? Because at the present time, with the kind of money we want to spend, you can do one or the other. You can’t do both. Because you can either spend the money on equipment, transformation, all those words, or you can spend it on people.”

Rumsfeld and Bush want to spend it on equipment, including “Star Wars” missile defense and an F-22 fighter aircraft that looks an awful lot like it was designed to take on the next-generation Soviet jet that is never coming.

“The defense budget has taken no sacrifice whatsoever, including a number of weapons systems that are Cold War relics and that are not attuned to what everyone acknowledges is the new asymmetric threat,” Rep. Tauscher says. “Even if we just slow-walked national missile defense, we could take $1.6 billion out of this year and we could buy 10,000 Army troops.”

But the Bush administration is making no plans to choose people over bigger and bigger toys. A decision to increase the size of the Army would require a trade-off, a sacrifice somewhere else in the defense budget, and neither Bush nor Rumsfeld has shown any inclination in that direction. Instead they are clinging to the idea that the combat-phase success of the transformed Army — lighter, faster, more lethal — can be translated into the hard slog of post-combat operations. So the crisis confronting the Army, weary and understaffed, hunkered down in an unstable Iraq, is deepening, and so is the danger to every soldier.

Robert Schlesinger, a former Pentagon correspondent for the Boston Globe, is a freelance reporter based in Washington and a contributing editor at the Washington Examiner.

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