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U.S.: Top General Says Iraq, Afghan Wars Weaken Armed Forces

By Andrew Tully

Two years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean and declared that "major combat" was over in Iraq. But an insurgency has raged on, and about 50,000 U.S. troops remain -- many of them forced to stay even though their enlistments have expired. The Bush administration says the war has not strained U.S. military might. But now General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reportedly told Congress that the U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are limiting the Pentagon's abilities for potential combat elsewhere.

Washington, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A reporter asked President Bush at a White House news conference last week if he believes the war is straining America's military resources.

The president replied: "The person to ask that to -- the person I ask that to, at least -- is to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, my top military adviser. I say, 'Do you feel that we've limited our capacity to deal with other problems because of our troop levels in Iraq?' And the answer is no, he doesn't feel we're limited. He feels like we've got plenty of capacity."

But that's not the answer Myers is said to have given to Congress on 2 May. He reportedly said that because of the strain of the war in Iraq, U.S. forces involved in other major combat would fight longer, with greater loss of life -- both to civilians and combatants.

Myers' account was classified, but copies were obtained by U.S. newspapers, including "The New York Times" and the "Los Angeles Times."

The question is the extent to which the U.S. military is hampered. And the answer is: not very much, according to Marcus Corbin, a senior military analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a private policy-research center in Washington. Corbin told RFE/RL that the U.S. military is so strong that it could not be defeated -- in conventional warfare at least -- by any army in the world, even if the United States still had major commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, Corbin said an additional military venture might take longer, and there may be more casualties. And there are additional factors that don't show up on the battlefield -- drains on resources and money. "The reality on the ground is really a different matter, and I think in certain areas you really do see some stresses," he said. "Again, it's never a matter of losing a war, it's a matter of how much money and effort we need to make an effective military and what the cost might be in executing some other mission [in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan]."

Two years ago, there was concern that the United States was so involved in Iraq that it may not have the military resources to intervene properly in the civil war in the African country of Liberia. Bush eventually sent a small force of Marines to help evacuate foreign nationals.

But Corbin said he never questioned the United States' ability to intervene in Liberia more fully if it chose to do so. The fact was, he said, the Bush administration simply did not want to get involved in that conflict.

Jack Spencer, a defense and security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, agrees. In fact, Spencer told RFE/RL that incidents like the Liberian civil war illustrate the true nature of the stress on the U.S. armed forces. Spencer said General Myers' report to Congress is "not a big deal." He said a government can't use military resources in two places as effectively as it can in one. That, he said, is to be expected.

But Spencer said there is another aspect of stress that is very important. He said that in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, U.S. military funding was cut and American fighters were trained not for combat, but for peacekeeping and nation-building -- tasks that he says are not suitable for the armed forces.

"The 'big deal' part is that we can do a lot better at getting more capability out of what we already have," Spencer said. "A lot of the reason there's a lot of stress on the force now is because we spent the previous 10 years prior to 9-11 [the attacks of 11 September 2001] doing the Bosnias and the Kosovos at the same time we were underfunding our military and also taking away its resources. So it [the U.S. military] was already a stressed-out force prior to 9-11."

Spencer said it's time for the Pentagon to shift its priorities entirely to combat readiness. That way, its forces will face less stress if they find themselves in a new military campaign.

Beyond military readiness, some critics of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq say that that war distracted the administration from capturing Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader who is blamed for the 9-11 attacks and who remains at large.

Corbin, of the Center for Defense Information, said he "absolutely" agrees with that assessment. He said the U.S. armed forces should have been allowed to focus their attention and resources on the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan and neighboring regions of Pakistan. "It's very clear that in terms of attention and focus and resources that going to war in Iraq really did detract from and undercut the effort in Afghanistan -- and globally -- to combat Al-Qaeda," he said.

By now, Corbin said, bin Laden should have been caught. Spencer disagrees strongly. "That's really what we need to learn from 11 September [2001] -- not that bin Laden specifically did 11 September and that he specifically needs to be found, imprisoned or killed, which would be nice," Spencer said. "But if we're bin Laden-centric in our approach, then we lost [the war against militants], and we will lose thousands more people because we will not have gotten to the problem that needs to be gotten to, which is the emergence of globalized terrorism that is sponsored by states."

Spencer said the 9-11 attacks have encouraged people unaffiliated with Al-Qaeda to imitate bin Laden, and recent advances in technology -- from communications to improvising bombs -- have empowered them to act. To focus entirely on bin Laden, Spencer said, would be a true distraction from the fight against other militants.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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