updated 5/15/2006 8:08:49 PM ET 2006-05-16T00:08:49

National Guard troops tapped for duty on the border with Mexico will not chase down illegal immigrants but instead will play behind-the-scenes roles in support of border guards, officials said Monday.

Among the tasks they are likely to perform over the coming year: training federal Border Patrol guards, building barriers near the border, improving roadways, providing support for aerial and ground surveillance, analyzing and sharing intelligence, and providing communications systems and transportation, the officials said.

The intent is to deepen the Guard’s existing support for law enforcement agencies — but only temporarily.

Several thousand Guard troops are likely to be called on to help, but it was not clear whether they would come only from the four border states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — or whether those states’ governors would use Emergency Management Assistance Compacts to get Guard troops from other states.

Few Pentagon details before address
Pentagon officials offered few details in advance of President Bush’s nationally televised address on the illegal immigration problem . Speaking on condition of anonymity, defense officials stressed that the intention is to provide short-term assistance until the Border Patrol and other agencies can develop more of their own capabilities.

The National Guard already provides support to law enforcement agencies on the border, although in small numbers. Sending several thousand more will add yet another mission to a part-time force already stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The idea that the Guard is overstretched is correct,” retired Army Gen. George Joulwan said in an interview Monday. But he said its use in a supporting role can be justified, given the seriousness of the border problem.

“In a supporting role to law enforcement, I would agree that this is something they need to do,” so long as the Pentagon is able to balance this with the Guard’s commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Joulwan said.

Guard spokesman: ‘Mission is doable’
John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association, an advocacy group for Guard officers, noted that the Army Guard and Air Guard combined have about 444,000 personnel across the United States.

“It would seem this mission is doable,” Goheen said. “The numbers would not seem to make it that difficult.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was vital that Bush spell out the details of how the Guard will be used, and why.

“Unfortunately, President Bush has overtaxed, overused and underfunded this critical national security resource,” Reid said.

“Now, if it’s true the president is going to order them on another mission, he must tell us how he’s going to help them succeed, and ensure they are ready and prepared should they be called to another mission while stationed at our border,” Reid added.

Guard in Iraq down sharply
At one point last year National Guard troops represented about 50 percent of all U.S. combat forces in Iraq, but that has dropped sharply in recent months and is now below 20 percent. It is not expected to rise significantly this year or next.

About 71,000 National Guard troops are on active duty for the war on terrorism. That’s 16 percent of the total Guard force. Of the four border states affected, California and Texas both have about 20,000 Guard members; Arizona has about 7,400 and New Mexico has about 4,000. According to figures provided by the Pentagon, California, Arizona and New Mexico each have roughly 10 percent of their Guard force already mobilized for Iraq or Afghanistan; Texas has about 18 percent.

The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, said Bush would ensure that the border missions not conflict with the Guard’s wartime duties.

“No. 1 is, he’s not going to do anything to compromise the two key duties of the National Guard,” Snow said. “One is to continue to fight the war on terror, and No. 2 is to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters. ... You’re talking about a very small percentage of the Guard at any one time.”

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