As President Bush weighs new strategies for Iraq, the Army's top general warned Thursday that his force "will break" without thousands more active duty troops and greater use of the reserves.
Noting the strain put on the force by operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the global war on terrorism, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said he wants to grow his half-million-member Army beyond the 30,000 troops already added in recent years.
Though he didn't give an exact number, he said it would take significant time and commitment by the nation, noting some 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers could be added per year.
Control of the National Guard and Reserve
Officials also need greater authority to tap into the National Guard and Reserve, long ago set up as a strategic reserve but now needed as an integral part of the nation's deployed forces, Schoomaker told a commission studying possible changes in those two forces.
The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves next spring is expected to recommend policy and budget changes for reserve units.
"Over the last five years, the sustained strategic demand... is placing a strain on the Army's all-volunteer force," Schoomaker told the commission in a Capitol Hill hearing.
"At this pace... we will break the active component" unless reserves can be called up more to help, Schoomaker said in prepared remarks.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Schoomaker said Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, is looking at several military options for the war, including shifting many troops from combat missions to training Iraqi units. However, Schoomaker said, the military is more interested in getting the Iraqi security forces up to speed than anything.
Above all else, the military is looking at "how we generate Iraqi output," he said.
A purposeful surge
The Army in recent days has been looking at how many additional troops could be sent to Iraq, if the president decides a surge in forces would be helpful. But, officials say, only about 10,000 to 15,000 troops could be sent and an end to the war would have to be in sight because it would drain the pool of available soldiers for combat.
Further, many experts warn, there is no guarantee a surge would work to settle the violence.
"We would not surge without a purpose," Schoomaker told reporters. "And that purpose should be measurable."
Schoomaker's comments come as Bush continues his assessment of the Iraq war. Bush held three days of urgent meetings with top generals and other advisers. Over that time, Bush gathered advice from former and current commanders, including those in Iraq, as well as chiefs of the military services and other top Pentagon leaders.
He even heard from outside advisers who suggested he remove Marine Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to an official familiar with the meeting who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.
But Bush made it clear he will not map out a new war strategy until his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, has taken over and offered his counsel.
No apparent prelude to troop withdrawal
The president said he would present his plans for a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, while continuing to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ability to forge a viable governing coalition is questioned privately by some administration officials.
"The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave to turn Iraq over to extremists who want to do the American people and the Iraqi people harm," Bush said Wednesday, after a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gates.
Bush's very public effort to recalibrate the war effort comes with growing public pressure generated by the November elections that put Democrats in control of Congress and led to Rumsfeld's ouster.
But none of his comments sounded like a prelude to withdrawing substantial number of U.S. troops over the coming year, as was recommended by the Iraqi Study Group, a bipartisan commission that studied war options since March.
A number of administration officials have suggested privately that - while Bush has considered the possibility of a short-term troop increase - there is no consensus from the military on the wisdom of injecting a large number of additional troops.
Another option under discussion is increasing the number of U.S. troops who are placed inside Iraqi army and police units as advisers, providing a kind of on-the-job training that the senior military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, told reporters is already paying notable dividends.
The military has said that any adjustments in troop levels would be fruitless without accompanying improvements on the political and economic fronts, to reconcile the rival sectarian factions and to put young people to work.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, meanwhile, called on the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. At a news conference in Washington, al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader who met with Bush earlier this week, said the timetable should be "flexible" and depend on development of a capable Iraqi security force.
"You've done your job," the vice president said at the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S.-financed think tank.
Currently, however, he said, "There is across-the-board chaos in my country," with roaming bands of murderers.