WASHINGTON — In the military, they call it "mission creep."
It's a way of describing how a mission expands, typically in small, barely discernible steps. And before anyone knows it, the operation looks much different.
So goes President Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq, according to critics, whose concerns include the strain on military resources.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq who helped pen the US military's counterinsurgency manual, has long believed that a large number of troops is needed to fight an insurgency. Some believe as many as 250,000 troops is the only way to do it right. General Petraeus inherited Mr. Bush's escalation plan, which was announced before he arrived in Iraq, and he may well want more troops. Currently, 141,000 are deployed in Iraq.
While many hope Petraeus will be the white knight to save Iraq with as little troop increase as possible, critics believe he'll continue to ask for more troops until he gets what he needs. It is, in essence, an example of mission creep, they say.
"They bet the farm on Petraeus," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official under President Clinton who is now with the Center for American Progress in Washington.
In January, Bush announced that he would send 21,500 combat troops to Iraq to help stem the violence there in what most agreed was a last-ditch effort to achieve success. Since then, more than 2,400 troops were also identified as combat service support personnel needed to support those combat brigades, even if Bush didn't allude to them initially. Since then, Petraeus has asked for another 2,200 military police to guard detainees caught as part of the security plan.
In addition, on March 10, Bush said he would send an additional 3,500 troops to Afghanistan as concerns mount about spring thaws bringing resurgent violence in the southern and eastern regions. In all last weekend, Bush announced an increase of at least 8,100 troops for both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The request for more troops, who are all to be in place by May, will bring the number in Iraq to nearly 160,000 – the highest it's been since January 2005, when there were 159,000 troops in Iraq. It's also the highest level since the invasion in March 2003.
But Americans watching the growth of troop levels in Iraq shouldn't focus on the numbers, says one defense official. Rather, he says, it's about the capabilities those forces will ultimately provide.
"If you do straight-line math, it just presumes that everything is going to stay the same," says the official, who asked not to be named because he was expressing his own view and not necessarily that of the Pentagon. "Numbers are numbers: The level of effort in Iraq is going to reach 20 brigade combat teams."
The requests to send more troops come as Congress has run out of patience on Iraq – even if it doesn't exactly know how to stop Bush. Still, Congress may have a say. Some lawmakers want to see the bulk of troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York wants all combat troops out by March 2008.
But whatever happens down the road, critics are concerned about present hardships for American service men and women, as well as for the military more broadly. The Army is at its "breaking point" when it comes to such issues as training and equipment, says Mr. Korb, the former Pentagon official. Congress should ensure the troops' readiness by ensuring that the units going to Iraq are certified ready in terms of equipment, training and manning, he says.
Recruiting and retention, two indicators of the strength of the military, have begun to falter, Korb says. On Monday, the Pentagon released its monthly recruiting totals. The Marine Corps met 106 percent of its goal, and the Army met 103 percent of its monthly goal. The Army National Guard, however, met only 81 percent of its goal, and the Army Reserve met 94 percent of its goal.
The Army has had to loosen its standards on how many recruits to accept who scored toward the bottom range of the military's entrance exam, according to Defense Department data. During fiscal year 2006, nearly 39 percent of Army recruits scored in the two lowest categories of the exam – up from 32 percent in 2005 and 27 percent in 2003. In addition, in fiscal year 2006, only 81 percent of its recruits had high school diplomas, according to the data.
It could take years to get the services back on track, critics warn. "It may already be too late," Korb says.