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Radio Singapore International July 27, 2005

Why is the US military stretched so tight in Iraq?

The United States is the world’s sole remaining superpower, right? Well, of course. There is no doubt about it. No other power is capable of fighting two wars simultaneously – Iraq and Afghanistan; and at the same time maintain a presence throughout the world. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the United States remains the only country in history to have fought a truly global war – taking on Nazi Germany in Europe and North Africa on the one hand, while on the other, island hopping its way up across the Pacific, from Australia to Okinawa.

So why is the US military now stretched so tight because it has a mere 150,000 troops in Iraq? There are a million men and women in the US Army. Why is there talk then of extending tours of duty or cutting back the forces in Iraq or enlarging the military? What are the other 850,000 soldiers in the US Army doing?

Mr Fred Kaplan, a security expert, explained matters recently in a most interesting article in slate.com. Drawing on figures provided by GlobalSecurity.org, Mr Kaplan pointed out that fewer than 40 per cent of the US Army’s one million personnel consists of combat soldiers. The rest are support and logistics troops. And fewer than 40 per cent of the US Army’s 391,000 combat soldiers are from the active military. The rest are from the National Guard and the Army Reserve. No wonder having 150,000 soldiers in Iraq is posing such a strain on the US Army. America’s one million strength army consists of only 149,000 active-duty combat soldiers.

They are organised into 37 combat brigades – 10 in Iraq, one in South Korea and one in Afghanistan. That’s 12 deployed in hot spots, as Mr Kaplan puts it. So what about the other 25? Well, nine just recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan – the rule is 12 months out, and 12 months back home; 15 are in training; and one is being reconstituted. That is why Washington is drawing so much on National Guard units and the Reserves. These are part-time soldiers. Every time they are called up for duty, their families and employers are affected. Two years ago, at the peak of the Iraqi invasion, more than 220,000 reservists were deployed on domestic and overseas missions. That number has dropped to 138,000 now, according to the New York Times, but the US Army is still strained.

That is because “more and more of these reservists troops who have been involuntarily mobilised are nearing their 24-month maximum call-up limit set by the Bush administration,” the Times reported. This causes difficulties for the army, because Reserve and National Guard soliders provide critical support, like serving as military police and civil affairs officers and truck drivers. With recruitment into the active army also declining – people are not exactly lining up to go fight in Falluja or Tora-Bora – there is serious concern about whether the US can sustain its current deployments across the globe.

An obvious solution – reintroducing the draft – is anathema to a great many people. Surprisingly, the military’s top brass are among them. They remember when the Army consisted of enlisted soldiers. True the Second World War was won by citizen-soldiers, but the military brass remembers a less happy experience with enlistees – the Vietnam war. Politicians are no more enthusiastic about the draft for obvious reasons: One, voters wouldn’t like it; and two, it is a good deal more difficult to wage war with citizen-soldiers than it is with active-duty and reservist volunteers. Imagine where President George Bush would be today if he had commanded an army of draftees. A majority of Americans now feel Iraq was a mistake, Mr Bush’s approval ratings are declining, and a number of prominent politicians have urged him to set a deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Thus far, however, Mr Bush is not facing widespread street protests against the war. He probably would have if there were a draft.

None of these problems indicates, of course, that America’s days as a superpower are numbered. But they do suggest that even a superpower does run up against limits.


Copyright 2005, Radio Singapore International