The strain of the war in Iraq is increasingly forcing senior Pentagon leaders to be blunter about the military's inability to sustain war operations indefinitely, a shift in tone that may mean more troops come home sooner.
The change comes as the security situation in Iraq looks much improved over even six months ago. It also comes under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has welcomed candor from his commanders. As a result, senior leaders have taken advantage of the situation to make a more public case that the military, especially the Army, can no longer afford the luxury of sustained military operations in Iraq.
The Pentagon is already taking steps to draw down forces. Currently, there are about 165,000 American troops in Iraq, which includes about 20 combat brigades. By next summer, the plan is to return five combat brigades, or about 20,000 troops.
But a push is under way to bring home even more by the end of next year. Last Friday, Secretary Gates reiterated his hope that five additional combat brigades could be sent home by December 2008.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is expected to return to Washington in March to give his assessment of US military operations, which will inform the debate about the drawdown for next year.
"My hope has been that the circumstances on the ground will continue to improve in a way that would, when General Petraeus and the chiefs and Central Command do their analysis in March, will allow a continuation of the drawdown at roughly the same pace as the first half of the year," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last Friday.
Since Gates assumed his job a year ago, he has been an advocate of both improving security in Iraq while also lessening the strain on US forces. But increasingly, the Pentagon's war policy appears to be driven by the reality that the Defense Department, especially the Army, simply can't continue to deploy soldiers at the current pace.
Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff and the former senior commander in Iraq, has been particularly frank about the state of the Army.
"We're deploying at unsustainable rates," General Casey said three weeks ago during remarks to an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The Army agreed to a buildup of troops a year ago with the understanding that it was temporary, he said. "We can't sustain that. We have to come off of that, and we're working that very hard."
The strains on the Army are nothing new. When President Bush announced a new approach for Iraq last year, the thinking was that, despite the problems the Army was facing, it was more important to try to get it right in Iraq. And so another 30,000 troops were moved into combat. Top officials say drawing down troops is still "conditions-based." But there is also recognition that the Army can't go on this way much longer, deploying troops multiple times for 15-month tours.
One retired general who remains close to the situation sees a shift in which the impact of operations in Iraq is beginning to dictate the policy, not the other way around.
The retired general, who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the situation, said a decision to give the Army some relief could go a long way to alleviate stress on the service.
"If we can reduce the frequency and length of deployments to Iraq, and therefore let some of this air out of the balloon, in the short term you may restore a degree of morale and optimism and sustain readiness and recruiting in ways that can help," he says.
Critics of the war have been saying the Army is at or near its breaking point for years, yet few believe it's actually happened. One of their concerns is that the strain of multiple deployments will discourage good individuals from joining the Army – or "re-upping" and staying in.
Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who works as a consultant and makes frequent trips to Iraq, returned in mid-December from a week-long trip to Iraq and Kuwait. He was critical of the execution of the war under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld but sees positive signs now, despite strains on the force. He has repeatedly called for a larger Army, which he says should be 800,000-strong.
The Army is expected to grow to 547,000 soldiers by 2010, and Casey has left the door open for an even bigger increase beyond that. But time is running short for the Army now, Mr. McCaffrey says. "We can probably sustain a force in Iraq indefinitely (given adequate funding) of some 10-plus brigades," McCaffrey wrote in a post-trip report. "However, the US Army is starting to unravel."
The Marine Corps, the other ground service largely engaged in Iraq, is smaller and has been able to manage the war's impact differently. Its recruiting and retention has remained strong without falling short of its standards so far.
While there is reasonable consensus that a significant drawdown must occur to relieve the Army – from Gates to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the service chiefs and many combatant commanders – Petraeus may not see things the same way. An expert in counterinsurgency, Petraeus believes such campaigns can last a decade or more if done right. While he is mindful of the strains on the force, he is considered to be more focused on maintaining the security momentum there, analysts say.
Casey insists the Army is not "hollow" or "broken" – terms often used by concerned observers – but "out of balance." In his remarks at Brookings earlier this month, he said there is an almost indiscernible line. "There's a thin red line out there that you don't know when you cross it until after you've crossed it," he said.
But Casey may be willing to go only so far in publicly acknowledging the problem, says the retired general. "Brutal honesty," he says, about the true morale within the Army and the challenges the institution faces could actually create a bigger problem within the ranks as officers and enlisted soldiers become discouraged, and even more could get out. It would become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the retired general.
Still, Casey is "doing all the right things," he says. "He is sticking his neck out and forcing people to think about the problem."