When two major studies released this week questioned whether the US Army is being stretched too thin, they raised a much- repeated concern: that America does not have enough troops to win the war in Iraq.
At a deeper level, though, they raise the question of whether today's military is prepared for the threats that could lie ahead in the war on terror.
The Pentagon's answer is a categorical "yes," insisting that the military is well suited for whatever the future holds. But with the department's four-year plan for spending and strategy to be presented to Congress next month, critics say that America's experience in Iraq suggests that the US may not be ready for another long, slow Iraq-style war.
"What are the countries we could not afford to walk away from" if they collapsed? asks Andrew Krepinevich, author of one of the studies and an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. Suggesting that Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia would be among the candidates, he adds, "Even if you thought the approach in Iraq was the right one, it's very difficult to see how you scale up the Army to deal with [those conflicts]."
The question is purely one of structure, not skill. Reports such as those released this week - one by Mr. Krepinevich; the other by former Defense Secretary William Perry - have suggested that the force is simply not large enough to do what the Defense Department has asked of it. The debate has played out at times publicly - in Congress and the media - and at times privately, as when former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer requested more troops in 2003 and was ignored, he says.
But only rarely has attention left Iraq and focused on what that conflict says about future threats. Now is one of those times. The Pentagon is scheduled to submit the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to Congress Feb. 6. The QDR will set the Pentagon's priorities for the next four years by laying out a vision of what military leaders expect future threats to be, and then aligning the department's budgets and doctrine.
The Army of today is in many ways a reflection of the 2001 QDR. To react to flashpoints around the globe in a post-cold-war world, it suggested, the Army needed to be smaller but quicker - able to deploy to the far corners of the globe at a moment's notice. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a "transforming" Army deployed to devastating effect. But now, an Army designed for lightning strikes is being asked to keep the lid on a country where many neighborhoods are seething with anti-American sentiment.
To Krepinevich, that difficult task serves as a warning about the types of challenges US forces could face in future conflicts. In countries prone to Islamic radicalism - such as Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia - any military venture would probably involve a lengthy peacekeeping after the war is won. Moreover, since these countries are far larger than Iraq in both size and population, it would take a far larger force to control them.
If a country such as Pakistan collapses, he says, there is the possibility that Muslim radicals could seize a state with nuclear weapons - something the United States would not tolerate. Unless the US could get major help from its allies, it is unprepared for such a scenario, he adds.
The Pentagon disagrees. Defense officials insist that the size of the force in Iraq is what the generals want, and as the Army transforms, the process will free more soldiers to fight - creating the more-agile Brigade Combat Teams, moving troops out of jobs that can be done by civilians, and rebalancing Army and reserve duties.
"Does the force still need more rebalancing? You bet," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a briefing Wednesday. "You know, an awful lot of things are happening and there are a lot of moving parts." But in the end, he and other officials say, this is the Army they want.
"Out of the QDR, this force structure we think is appropriate to the threat," said Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey in a briefing this month.
Not surprisingly, critics are skeptical. Some who are familiar with drafts of the coming QDR suggest that the lessons learned from Iraq have simply heaped more duties - including peacekeeping - on a force already struggling to meet the ones it has.
"Given how stretched our ground forces are, how can you set that standard without recommending that we substantially grow our ground forces over time?" asks Michèle Flournoy, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "Many people may want to avoid a war like Iraq in the future, but most wars that we fight are not wars of choice," she adds.