WASHINGTON—The Pentagon is scrambling to find enough fresh troops to begin an orderly rotation program that would bring home some of the 147,000 soldiers spread thinly across troubled Iraq.
With the new commanding general of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, confirming what others in the Defense Department had been reluctant to admit—that United States forces face an increasingly deadly guerrilla war—the question of relief and rotation for weary GIs moved to the front burner.
The easiest fix would be for the 14,000 foreign forces, mostly British, already in Iraq to be augmented by thousands more allied soldiers. But negotiations to internationalize the occupation have been slow and difficult.
Defense officials noted the difficulties by citing Hungary's offer to send a truck battalion with no trucks. Presumably the American military would have to supply the trucks for the Hungarians to drive.
The need for replacement troops is putting great strain on both the active and reserve forces already stretched thin meeting obligations in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, South Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sinai—and a brigade-sized force of up to 5,000 troops expected to be deployed to peacekeeping duties in Liberia.
With only ten active duty divisions the 480,000-man U.S. Army has been stretched almost to the breaking point by the Iraq deployments. While Defense Secretary Donald L. Rumsfeld and his top civilian aides have talked in the past of chopping another two divisions out of that Army, some in Congress have begun urging an increase in the active Army by as much as 25 percent.
Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, in his retirement speech last month, warned against loading 12 divisions worth of tasks on a 10-division Army. Last February Shinseki got in trouble with Rumsfeld for predicting before a Congressional committee that securing postwar Iraq might require more than 200,000 American soldiers.
Even more stressful have been the unprecedented demands placed on America's citizen-soldiers, the troops in the 900,000-strong Reserve and National Guard, over 200,000 of whom are on active duty. Some of them have been called up for more than a year already, placing great financial strains on their families and in many cases putting their civilian careers and businesses in jeopardy.
The likelihood of more Reserve and Guard call-ups for Iraq comes even as Rumsfeld has ordered an urgent study and the drafting of plans by month's end for a sweeping restructuring of those part-time forces that would shift a great deal of the burden back into the active military.
Pentagon officials said Rumsfeld's objective in rebalancing the Reserves and Guard is to ensure that every time the United States takes action in the world it does not automatically mean the call-up of large numbers of Reservists and Guard troops.
After the searing experience of Vietnam, Pentagon officials like former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger took pains to guarantee that all of America would have a stake in future combat operations by putting such crucially needed units as the military police, air refueling tanker pilots and civil-military affairs specialists into the Reserve and Guard. Then, the theory went, almost every community in the nation would have to make a contribution to any war.
The CentCom commander says he is working to establish a one-year tour of duty in Iraq and to ensure that those troops who had been there the longest would be the first to rotate home.
That would be the U.S. Army's 15,000-man 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, which spearheaded the 19-day drive to Baghdad. One brigade of that division has been in Kuwait and Iraq for nearly a year.
Pentagon officials said even more National Guard and Reserve troops may have to be called up for deployment to Iraq. Elements of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii are likewise under consideration for deployment to Iraq.
Although top Defense Department officials had hoped that the numbers of U.S. troops required to secure Iraq would be swiftly declining to below 100,000 by now, this has not happened and does appear likely to happen with the confirmation that mid-level Baath Party die-hards and disgruntled Iraqi soldiers are organizing and conducting more sophisticated guerrilla operations against American soldiers.
Perhaps the most telling comment of all this past week came in a photograph circulating on the Internet which shows an Army truck roaring down a dusty Iraq road, obviously driven by a disgruntled Reservist, with a placard in the front window saying: "One weekend a month my a--."