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September 26, 2006

Iraq, Overstretched Army Bring Bush New Grief

by Jim Lobe

With the U.S. intelligence community agreed that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have made this country less safe from terrorist threats, President George W. Bush appears now to be facing a growing revolt among top military commanders who say U.S. ground forces are stretched close to the breaking point.

According to Monday's Los Angeles Times, the Army's top officer, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, has called for nearly a 50 percent increase in spending – to nearly $140 billion – in 2008 to cope with the situation in Iraq and maintain minimal readiness for possible emergencies.

To convey his seriousness, Schoomaker reportedly withheld the Army's scheduled budget request last month in what the Times called an "unprecedented … protest" against previous rejections by the White House of funding increases.

The news of Schoomaker's action, which is almost certain to intensify the growing debate over what to do in Iraq just seven weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm congressional elections, comes just days after the New York Times reported that the Army is considering activating substantially more National Guard troops or reservists.

Such a decision, which would run counter to previous administration pledges to limit overseas deployments for the Guard, would pose serious political risks for the Republicans if it was taken before the elections.

Unlike career soldiers, the Guard consists mainly of "citizen-soldiers" with families and jobs and deep roots in local communities. When the Pentagon last called up substantial numbers of Guard units for service in Iraq and Afghanistan in late 2003 and 2004, the move elicited a strong backlash in communities across the country.

With the war even less popular now than it was then, any major new call-up is likely to trigger renewed protests, particularly in light of the growing sense both among the national security elites and the general population that the administration's decision to invade Iraq was a major mistake and that the war is unwinnable.

Recent public opinion polls have shown that the public has become increasingly pessimistic about the war's outcome and its impact on the larger "global war on terror."

Earlier this month, for example, a New York Times/CBS poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents believed the war in Iraq was going either "somewhat" (28 percent) or "very badly" (33 percent).

For most of the past year, a majority of respondents in various polls have said they believe the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake and that it has made the United States less, rather than more, safe from terrorism.

The fact that a similar conclusion was reportedly reached by the 16 agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that make up the U.S. intelligence community last April in a rare National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is likely to add to the public's pessimism.

The NIE, some of whose contents were leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post over the weekend, found that the Iraq war has invigorated Islamic radicalism worldwide and aggravated the terrorist threat faced by the United States and other countries.

While the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, insisted Sunday that the newspaper accounts of the report's conclusions were partial and selective, they nonetheless backed up what a number of former senior intelligence analysts – most recently, the recently retired head of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, Emile Nakhleh – have been saying individually for much of the past year.

While Democratic lawmakers called Monday for the administration to immediately declassify the NIE, "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," so that the public could decide for itself, it is certain to intensify the debate about whether to begin withdrawing from Iraq or whether to "stay the course" there, despite the growing sectarian violence and the wear and tear on U.S. ground forces.

For most of the past year, the administration and senior military commanders expressed hope that they could reduce U.S. forces in Iraq from the approximately 140,000 troops who were there last December to help protect the parliamentary elections by as much as 30,000 by the end of this year.

But with the rise in sectarian violence, particularly in Baghdad, that followed the bombing last winter of a major Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, Washington has been forced to abandon those hopes. Last week, the senior U.S. Middle East commander, Gen. John Abizaid, made it official when he told reporters here that he needed at least 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring.

Even this number of troops, however, has not proved sufficient to curb the violence in Baghdad, while a recent report from the senior Marine intelligence officer in Anbar province, which comprises about one-third of Iraq's total territory, warned that the 30,000 U.S. troops deployed there could not defeat the Sunni insurgency without the addition of at least 13,000 troops and substantially more economic assistance.

Adding to the burden on the army and the marines, the resurgence of the Taliban has forced Washington to cancel plans to reduce forces in Afghanistan from 19,000 earlier this year to around 16,000 by this fall.

Instead, Washington currently has more than 20,000 troops deployed there amid signs that more may be needed if NATO fails to provide more troops of its own or if, in light of the retreat of Pakistani forces from neighboring Waziristan, the Taliban mount an even bigger offensive from across the border next spring after the snows melt.

These commitments have taken a huge, unanticipated toll on U.S. land forces, not just in manpower, but in equipment and money, as well.

Before the war, the Pentagon's political appointees confidently predicted that Iraq's oil production would very quickly pay for the invasion's financial costs and that Washington could draw down U.S. forces to as few as 30,000 by the end of 2003.

In fact, about $400 billion – almost all of it for military operations – has been appropriated for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since September 2001, and current operations there are running at about $9 billion a month.

The Army, which has some 500,000 active-duty soldiers, has been allocated $98 billion this year, and the White House has cleared it to receive $114 billion for 2008. But Schoomaker has reportedly asked for $139 billion, including at least $13 billion needed to repair equipment. "There's no sense in us submitting a budget that we can't execute, a broken budget," he warned recently in a speech here.

In addition to strains on both the land forces and their equipment, senior military leaders are also worried about attrition among mid-ranking officers, in particular, and the quality and cost of new recruits.

The military has greatly intensified its recruitment efforts, relaxed its age and education requirements for enlistment, and offered unprecedented bonuses and benefits packages – worth thousands of dollars – to enlistees and active-duty soldiers who re-enlist.

It has also increased enlistments by individuals with "'serious criminal misconduct" in their records," and eased requirements of non-citizens – of which there are currently about 40,000 in the armed services – and made them eligible to citizenship after only one day of active-duty military service.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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