US force nears limit of its global stretch

A decision on deploying troops to Liberia may hinge on needs elsewhere as troop levels stay high in Iraq.

So many United States troops are now deployed to so many different places around the world that the American military may be in danger of overextension.

Consider the state of the Army, the service most affected by the nation's foreign commitments. There are still upwards of 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, plus 10,000 in Afghanistan. Some 5,000 remain on peacekeeping duty in the Balkans.

Add in 25,000 GIs based in Korea, plus other foreign stations, and the deployed total is close to 250,000.

This global peacekeeping force must be generated from an active-duty Army of 480,000, plus 550,000 reserves. At the least, the strain may play havoc with training and leave. At the most, it could cause many tired and homesick personnel to leave the service.

On Wednesday, President Bush said workload concerns might limit any US peacekeeping mission in Liberia.

A final decision on any US involvement in that chaotic West African country has not yet been made, said Bush at a joint news conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki.

But the president noted that the Pentagon has already trained African peacekeepers from Nigeria, Senegal, and other countries. Thus any US deployment to Liberia might center on training and aid for African troops. "It's in our interest that we continue that strategy so that we don't ever get overextended," said Bush.

The main reason that some analysts both within and outside the military are worried about being stretched thin is obvious: the necessity of keeping large forces in Iraq.

The administration's prewar estimates held that a US occupation force could be whittled down to 50,000 in fairly short order. Iraq's indigenous bureaucracy would be able to handle security and administration swiftly, planners felt.

Then came the looting and insecurity of the war's immediate aftermath, plus continued resistance from remnants of the defeated Saddam Hussein regime.

At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of US troops in the Iraq war, said that the current force of 150,000 troops would have to remain in Iraq for the "foreseeable future."

This revelation was not startling. Still, some Senators complained that the administration has yet to think through its Iraq peacekeeping plans. "We are dangerously stretched thin in the Army and other services also," said Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island.

A betrayal of expectations

That US forces would be stretched during a crisis such as the fight for Baghdad is no surprise, say analysts.

The problem is what comes after. Many US units overseas include reservists who have been uprooted from families and jobs for months. Half the active-duty Army is married, and has been similarly separated from home and hearth.

Even if brought back soon, many units might face another deployment to Iraq in 2004 or even 2005, if the security situation remains unsettled.

"We won't be able to maintain the level of professionalism we have [in the military] if men and women are kept away from their families for a long period of time," says Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Most of the people in the military today signed up under the assumption that deployments and combat would be the exception rather than the rule. When that is not the case, stresses accumulate. People leave service - and a few even lash out.

"When you look at patterns in groups that have been intensely deployed ... we have had increases in suicides and violent assaults," says retired Brig. Gen. John Reppert, a military strategist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of government.

The search for solutions

Today's deployments likely mean that training for longer-term missions, such as the integration of new NATO nations' militaries into the common force, might also be neglected.

Solutions to strains in the force might include mobilization of "weekend warriors" that, up to this point, haven't been called on.

"One option to look at is mobilizing some of our many National Guard forces," says Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

The Pentagon could also lean more on the Marine Corps to supplement Army peacekeeping troops, and perhaps even apply to Congress for an increase in Army strength of 10,000 to 20,000 personnel. And of course, the US could also solicit troops from allies that opposed the Iraq war.

"It's a mystery to me why, apparently, we have not reached out to NATO and to the United Nations as institutions," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan on Wednesday. "Their support could bring significant additional forces."

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