An elephant in the GOP living room: troop numbers in Iraq

Bush has no plans to add troops in Iraq, but questions persist about whether the US force has been big enough.

The question of whether the United States waged war on Iraq with sufficient troop force may seem like spilled milk 18 months after the invasion. But as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse investigations and continuing violence in Iraq demonstrate, it is not an issue that will be sopped up any time soon.

In part that is because this is an election season where Iraq will loom large, analysts say, with voters weighing the Bush administration's signature foreign-policy action. Distilled, the Abu Ghraib investigation is an indictment of the decision to send far fewer troops than some top Pentagon brass insisted would be necessary.

But it is also because the continued widespread fighting in Iraq, involving daily US casualties, raises questions about troop levels: how past decisions affected the situation US soldiers are in today, whether the kinds of soldiers in combat are the right ones, and how US military presence might change in the future.

"This is not just something scholars are wrestling with, but an issue with ongoing policy and political relevance because it goes to the heart of whether the Bush administration correctly gauged how the war would unfold," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired army officer and director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "As events are making very clear, we don't have enough people on the ground to do the job that's necessary."

Many experts agree that in hindsight not enough troops were deployed to occupy Iraq after defeating Saddam Hussein - indeed, even President Bush said in an interview with The New York Times last week that "miscalculations" were made, though he added that his plan had been "flexible" and adjusted to needs.

In any case, some of them say the time to talk about increasing US troop numbers has passed, superseded by the need to put Iraqis in charge of their own country.

"The issue of troop levels is important but it is becoming a historical question as our focus shifts to how to 'Iraqify' the effort there as quickly as possible," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military and foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "You don't hear a lot of tough talk in Congress about the need for more troops like you did a year ago."

Even Sen. John McCain, who has consistently supported sending more troops to make sure the US wins the conflict, did not mention that position when he addressed the Republican Party's convention Monday. The Arizona Republican continues to believe that troop levels in Iraq - nearly 160,000 soldiers - are not enough, but he is expected to reserve that point for fall Senate hearings.Yet, as the senator's prime-time speech suggests, Iraq and the place of US troops there will be key to the election.

"This is very much a political issue, and it's because of the stress placed on the forces, both in the occupation period that has now ended and in this new phase," says Patrick Lang, a retired officer from the Defense Intelligence Agency.

With the National Guard now making up 40 percent of US forces in Iraq, Colonel Lang says many Americans are well aware of the strain. "The heavy Guard involvement means all this is reaching directly into little communities all across the country," he says, "and it has a political impact."

The Abu Ghraib investigations find the scandal part of an over-all picture of chaos in postwar Iraq. Not enough troops were on hand to control looting and social deterioration, the reports find. And then when prisons filled, too few experienced guards were available to run them.

Mr. Bacevich says that emerging picture is relevant to political decisionmaking now because it links the "wildly overly optimistic estimations of what would be the aftermath of deposing Saddam Hussein" and the number of troops on hand. "In the case of Abu Ghraib," he says, "it led to far too few soldiers trying to handle far too many disgruntled prisoners."

And that's important, other analysts say, because the scandal contributed to what they see as the biggest US problem in Iraq today: growing anti-Americanism.

"We can't afford to increase the visibility of American forces in Iraq, so talk of increasing their numbers is beside the point," says Mr. O'Hanlon of Brookings. Nor, he adds, can the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi risk looking even more dependent on the Americans.

Bacevich says the continuing violence indicates that more US troops are needed if security and order is to be established. But he says any discussion of that will be put off until after the election, since it brings up difficult questions of total troop force and even of a possible draft.

But others insist that no matter what one might conclude about past decisions on troop numbers in Iraq, the kind of conflict the country faces now is not one the US can solve.

"I don't think we could ever have enough numbers to handle this now," says Lang. "At this point this has to be done on Iraqi terms and settled among themselves."

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