WASHINGTON — After years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is seriously limited today in its ability to fight in other major conflicts.
That's the sobering assessment from the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, who told Congress on Tuesday that the United States would ultimately win another war, but it would take longer and put U.S. forces at greater risk, because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained resources.
Myers expressed confidence that American forces would ultimately prevail in any future conflict.
“The timelines may have to be extended, we may have to use additional resources, but it doesn’t matter, because we will be successful in the end,” he said.
Forces may not be as fast, precise
But in his annual Risk Assessment Report to Congress, Myers warns that the stressed U.S. military forces may be unable to meet expectations for speed and precision — in fighting and winning another conflict — and that “may result in higher casualties” for both U.S. military and civilians.
“The problem is that so much or our force is tied down that we don’t have enough to do other wars right away,” said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va.
One defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Myers predicted the risk would go down in a year or two.
The military’s reorganization toward Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a lean, agile force should reduce any increased risks it faces, he said.
Dealing with what's left of ‘axis’
Among the most likely conflicts the Pentagon foresees in the near term are with North Korea and Iran, the two remaining members of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” The Bush administration accuses both of having ambitions to become nuclear powers; North Korea has already claimed it has nuclear weapons.
The U.S. military has timelines for defeating its potential adversaries, given enough soldiers, tanks, aircraft and warships to do the job. But with so many of those resources tied up fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, those timelines could slip, Myers said, according to the defense official.
That increases the risk for conflict in places like North Korea and Iran, if either country believes the United States is in no position to rapidly respond militarily.
Myers' report comes as a nine-member commission held its first meeting Tuesday to discuss the next round of U.S. military base closings. The Defense Department will release a list of facilities on the chopping block next week.
Ex-general's dire view
Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army general and an MSNBC analyst, was more dire in his assessment of the nation's military. “Our ground combat power, the Army and the Marine Corps, are at their limit," he said Tuesday. "We cannot sustain another operation."
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, agreed. “We can respond, but the response is gonna be conditional and this complicates our diplomacy and national security,” he said.
About 138,000 American troops are in Iraq, according to U.S. Central Command. Another 18,000 are in Afghanistan.
Military officials have given no estimate of when they will be able to significantly draw down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, but some generals have suggested it could come next year if Iraqi security forces continue to improve in quality and grow in numbers.
NBC News' Jim Miklazsewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.