Good news for the troops?

The Pentagon is playing up an optimistic forecast for troop reductions and shorter tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the numbers tell a less rosy story.

Published April 8, 2005 7:49PM (EDT)

The U.S. military's recent recruiting problems have gotten plenty of media attention lately -- including rising worries about the return of the draft -- and so the Pentagon is offering up some news of a more optimistic variety. According to a report in today's L.A. Times, the Army, citing progress toward curbing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is considering cutting in half the year-long tours of duty currently required of soldiers deployed in the two war zones. Perhaps that'll help fill some new boots.

"Top Army strategists have largely ruled out shortening combat duty since Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked the heads of the military services on June 14 to reexamine their tours of duty," the Times reports. "But some Pentagon officials see new hope for shorter tours, of nine or even six months, which according to Army polls is favored by soldiers and families." (You don't say!) On that note, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's head of personnel, told reporters at the Pentagon, "What I would tell you is that we think that multiple shorter tours is the ideal way to go, ultimately."

The top brass is also touting the idea of overall troop reductions: Army Gen. George W. Casey characterized an anticipated downsizing of the 142,000 troops currently operating in Iraq as "fairly substantial."

But a look at the actual numbers -- including the kinds of troops still needed in theater -- tells a somewhat less optimistic story. The overall force reduction clocks in at less than 10 percent of the roughly 170,000 troops operating in the two war zones: "At the time of the Jan. 30 election in Iraq, there were approximately 150,000 U.S. troops there. That number is expected to drop within months to 138,000. The U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is expected to drop from 19,000 to just below 17,000 over the same period."

And the Army is boosting, not reducing, the number of combat fighters. The Pentagon says that it can now count on troops with more experience, who require less acclimation to combat zones; half of the soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division, now deployed in Iraq, have served previously there or in Afghanistan. But according to the Times, the total of 33 brigade combat teams (of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers each) now in theater will be ratcheted up to 43 -- that's an additional 30,000 to 50,000 fighters to be deployed for ground operations. Doesn't exactly sound like a vote of confidence that most of the bad guys have been brought to heel.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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