WASHINGTON — In the next few weeks, the Pentagon has a tough and politically sensitive decision to make.
If the Iraq coalition - mainly the United States and Britain - does not soon have firm commitments of enough international troops to make an additional division, then it will be necessary to mobilize more National Guard and Reserve troops. This may leave American forces stretched too thin to meet unpredictable global contingencies. It may also stir reaction from families at home, who are increasingly distressed about the fate of their loved ones serving ever-longer assignments in an often-hostile environment.
At the moment, there are about 144,000 American and 14,000 British troops in and near Iraq. There are also two international divisions, one under British command, the other under Polish. Some of the international elements are quite small - for example, the 180 Mongolians who are being used to guard petroleum pipelines.
For the Pentagon, the most immediate problem is that the 101st Airborne Division is scheduled to be rotated home in February or March. Unless it can be replaced by an international division, it will be necessary to start the training and orientation of American replacements soon. Some Reserve troops already have been alerted.
The question of foreign troops is currently bogged down in the negotiations for a new United Nations resolution, without which countries like Pakistan and Turkey are refusing to contribute troops.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is under pressure in Congress to bring home troops as soon as possible. At a stormy hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ranking Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he had heard from many families anxious to know when their loved ones would be coming home. Senator Byrd said that "pulling their fair share gets harder and harder as their fair share gets longer and longer and longer."
Pentagon officials worry that the increasing deployment of National Guard and Reserves in unpleasant and hazardous situations will discourage recruitment and retention. White House officials worry about the impact on voters. But, at this point, there is not much reason for optimism that foreign troops will be coming soon to relieve the long-serving GIs.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.