Is US force too small? Not in Bush view of Iraq

Critics of administration call for more troops, but polls show a reluctant public.

The question is hitting the White House with increasing ferocity: Does the US have enough troops in Iraq to do the job - let alone enough to carry out the global war on terrorism?

A growing chorus of experts and politicians is saying no. They claim that not only are more troops needed to avert chaos and restore order in Iraq, but that the overall strength of the US military must be increased to meet global challenges in the post-9/11 era.

Despite the mounting pressure, however, the Bush administration believes the US has adequate forces to carry out both tasks. The wildcard in all of this: the public. As the debate over US commitments overseas intensifies, polls show a hardening of American attitudes about the rebuilding effort and about leaving troops in Iraq too long.

A Newsweek poll released this weekend, for instance, shows that a majority of Americans - 55 percent to 40 percent - oppose sending more troops to the country. At the same time, an overwhelming number of Americans favor the US working with the UN to encourage other nations to send more of their soldiers to Iraq - even if it means Washington ceding some authority to the UN.

Moreover, some 60 percent of respondents to the survey say the estimated $1 billion per week that the US is spending to rebuild the country is too much.

Nonetheless, many military experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle believe the US needs to expand its footprint to finish the task. They point to the growing number of terror attacks in Iraq - the bombings of the UN headquarters last week and the home of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday, as well as to the escalation of US casualties. The death toll of American soldiers has nearly doubled since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, reaching 275.

At stake, though, is not only the faltering operation in Iraq. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. This past month was perhaps one of the worst since the US routed the Taliban regime in 2001. In one week alone, some 90 people (nearly all Afghans or Arab fighters) were killed, reportedly by a resurgent Taliban. Then, there is the tenuous situation in Liberia, not to mention the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. And Al Qaeda operatives may be on the run, but officials say they are still capable of mounting simultaneous attacks in several countries.

"We're going to be in trouble a year from now if we don't handle force strength," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led a US division in the 1991 Gulf War. "We are in a global war on terror with inadequate forces."

General McCaffrey, who is now a professor of national security studies at West Point, says the US, which currently has some 368,000 Army soldiers deployed in 120 nations, is at risk of overextending its troops.

And both Democrats and some Republicans want additional troops and resources to be sent to Iraq - as much as 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers more. Sen. John McCain (R) or Arizona, just back from a trip to Iraq, is calling on President Bush to send "at least another division."

Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says at least 40,000 more troops are necessary to stabilize Iraq as well as "several hundred billion dollars." Senator Biden is also arguing for a new UN resolution to encourage more countries to participate.

But that prospect doesn't seem viable at the moment - especially with the US not willing to relinquish much authority in Iraq, and because of the wariness on the part of most of these nations. Few have little - if any - domestic support for such an operation, and their involvement could trigger reprisals by terror groups.

The administration, for its part, says the troop strength in Iraq is about right. They say they may rotate deployments to address evolving needs. For example, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of forces in the region, says the No. 1 threat in Iraq now is coming from terrorists, and better intelligence is needed to confront that threat.

A senior US official in Iraq told reporters over the weekend that occupation forces are beginning to recruit and train agents from the former Iraqi intelligence services to help thwart attacks.

As for on-the-ground security, General Abizaid said last week that more than 50,000 Iraqis are already armed and working with the coalition. Monday, published reports indicated that the US plans to send another 28,000 Iraqis to a former Soviet military base in Hungary for intensive police training.

To bolster security, some say the US does have options other than sending in more troops. "There are plenty of outfits that do that kind of work, including companies in South Africa, Britain, and here in the US," says James Woods, a former Pentagon official. "They usually send in a cadre of people and recruit and train locals up to a level where they can perform simple duties."

Others argue the US troop strength is about right and that it will just take creative thinking to adjust the force deployments. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has ordered a review of Pentagon policies to explore using forces more efficiently.

"The first place to go may be the Marine Corps," says Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. Though they were the first in and out of Iraq, he argues "they have three divisions and have also done a lot of thinking about modern combat operations."

But McCaffrey argues a more thorough rethink is needed. He says the current rotation plan risks overextending troops. He wants nine National Guard brigades called up and added to regular Army units, until more recruiting can be done.

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