The Defense Department says it needs more troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. But an Army general warns that troops already in the fight are under too much strain. The warning comes as violence in Afghanistan – unlike Iraq, where violence is down - is expected to increase.
The Defense Department announced that by July 2008, it will have more troops on the ground in Iraq than when the "surge was announced last January, while troop levels in Afghanistan will be at their highest since 2001, the Associated Press reports:
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that by July, the troop total [in Iraq] is likely to be 140,000. That compares with 132,000 when President Bush approved orders to send an additional five Army brigades to Iraq to improve security and avert civil war.
Ham also announced that the Pentagon believes U.S. force levels in Afghanistan will stand at 32,000 in late summer, up from about 28,000 currently. The current total is the highest since the war began in October 2001, and another 3,200 Marines are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this spring.
As that announcement comes, "Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told a Senate panel that the Army is under serious strain from years of war-fighting and must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible," the Associated Press reports.
"The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force and restore our flexibility for an uncertain future," Casey said.
"Discipline. Desertions and unexcused absences have increased," Casey said. "You're seeing folks not showing up for deployments."
Divorce and suicide. Divorce rates spiked in 2004 but have leveled off, he said. Suicides have increased, however. "That is a disturbing trend," he said. He maintained that the Army, while stressed, is resilient and able to meet its commitments. "It's not broken; it's not hollow."
The revelation comes at a bad time. In a recent survey, Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for New American Security interviewed 3,400 military leaders and found widespread beliefs that the war has "stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin." More than half the officers also said the war had not broken the military. (A PDF copy of the report is available here.)
In a recent profile of Defense Secretary Robert Gates by The New York Times, Mr. Gates, on a November visit to an Army base at Fort Hood, Texas, is quoted telling a group of wives of soldiers still in Iraq that he knew the 15-month tours were "exhausting" soldiers and families and hoped to return to the usual 12-month tours by the end of 2008.
But all these calculations depended on two crucial premises — that security continues to improve in Iraq and that Iraqi politicians settle their sectarian disputes. If those premises don't hold, further troop cuts beyond July might not be possible; deployment schedules might not be relaxed, either. Under those circumstances, it will be hard for the Army to sign up tens of thousands of extra recruits.
Still, as the US continues to struggle with its frayed military units, it can probably expect a fiercer fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, The Washington Post reports:
More foreign soldiers and Afghan civilians died in Taliban-related fighting last year than in any year since U.S. and coalition forces ousted the extremist Islamic militia, which ruled most of the country, in 2001. Military officials here expect the coming year to be just as deadly, if not more so, as the Taliban becomes more adept militarily and more formidable in its deployment of suicide bombers and roadside explosives.
Washington's NATO allies are debating how much more they want to get into the fight in Afghanistan.
Since 2002 there have been 2,500 Canadian troops stationed in the volatile southern part of the country.
Seventy-eight Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed, which has divided public opinion back home.
Canada's minority Conservative government wants to extend the mission beyond its current deadline of early 2009 to the end of 2011.
There appears to be growing consensus between the government and the main opposition party.
France may send hundreds of ground troops to help NATO fight insurgents in east Afghanistan, Le Monde newspaper said on Tuesday.
Such a move could get a mixed reaction from NATO allies such as the United States which want France and other European allies to deploy troops in the south of the country, where the fight against Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents has been toughest.