WASHINGTON—President Bush appears to be planning to maintain the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq at the current level of 130,000 for at least a year and possibly longer, a prospect that analysts say could compel him to shift troops from other missions or even increase the size of the Army.
In his address to the nation Sunday evening, Bush made no mention of how long it could take American forces and their coalition partners to stifle the guerrilla attacks and terrorist bombings that are hampering Iraq's political and economic reconstruction.
But his request for $87 billion for the war on terrorism includes $51 billion for ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq. That comes to just under $4.2 billion per month, or some $200 million more per month than the United States is currently spending on its ground force in Iraq.
"That suggests that we are going to maintain the same number of troops or even slightly increase the number" over the next year, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a research institute.
It also suggests that the White House thinks it has little hope of persuading NATO allies and countries such as India and Pakistan to contribute up to an additional 40,000 peacekeepers to Iraq.
"They've decided this is going to be a U.S. operation, using U.S. resources," said former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has been a frequent critic of Bush's Iraq operations.
But the administration faces substantial hurdles in finding enough U.S. soldiers to maintain a 130,000-strong ground force in Iraq for much longer.
Nearly three-quarters of the Army's 33 combat brigades are deployed in Afghanistan and in and around Iraq.
A report Sept. 3 by the Congressional Budget Office, a research arm of Congress, said that under its current troop-rotation plan, the Army must begin reducing the number of troops in Iraq next March. By the end of 2004, even supplemented by Army National Guard units, only 38,000 to 64,000 U.S. combat troops will be available for deployment in Iraq, it said.
Even if all the Army's existing active and reserve ground combat forces are used to support the occupation, with units rotating in and out every 12 months, the Pentagon could keep no more than 67,000 to 106,000 troops in Iraq over the long term, it said.
The problem boils down to mathematics.
Troops now serve in overseas missions from six months to a year. Iraq is a one-year deployment.
For every unit in Iraq or deployed elsewhere, one is back home resting, a second is in the early phases of training and a third is undergoing intense training in preparation for going overseas.
The system is designed to ensure adequate training and readiness throughout the 480,000-strong Army and limit the time that soldiers spend away from their families.
The Army also must worry about fulfilling other commitments, from meeting an unexpected threat to the nation's security to keeping the peace in the Balkans, pursuing remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and protecting South Korea from a North Korean invasion.
As a result, only a fraction of the Army's active-duty combat troops can be deployed to Iraq for an extended period.
Requiring soldiers to serve longer or more frequent overseas deployments could help ease the looming manpower problem. But it probably wouldn't be enough, analysts say.
More importantly, doing so could seriously harm morale by requiring soldiers to endure harsh conditions away from their families for longer periods. That could hamper the Army's ability to attract fresh recruits and to persuade seasoned soldiers to extend their careers instead of seeking private-sector jobs.
"Unlike Vietnam, where when you needed troops, you increased the draft calls, we (now) have a volunteer military," said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who runs the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, an independent research center. "In a volunteer military, you have to induce people to join and to stay."
The CBO report outlined a number of options for freeing up ground forces to serve in Iraq. But each carries possibly harmful consequences for U.S. national security.
For instance, the Army could send to Iraq the rapid reaction forces it usually keeps on standby at a high level of readiness, making 10,000 to 12,000 more troops available. But such a move would hobble the Pentagon's ability to respond to unexpected security threats or emergencies, the report said.
Another option would be increasing the size of the Army. The report considered adding 80,000 troops by expanding the number of active-duty Army divisions from 10 to 12. But recruiting, training and arming two new divisions would take up to five years and cost more than $19 billion, it said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.