The government of Iraq recently announced quite loudly that later this year, the U.S. presence in the country would be confined to garrisons. Although he hasn’t commented publicly on such issues since he left office, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who advocated strict parameters for the use of military, would be appalled at the notion of Americans holed up like rats in indefensible positions. Not surprisingly, the Department of Defense suggested this would not be the case, but the spat defined the problem that confronts our military and political leadership.
Those who believe that the size of the American force in Iraq is too small (including most people who have some experience in the use of the military instrument of power) have taken some heart from Sen. John McCain’s recent electoral successes. Alone among the candidates, McCain says our military strength is inadequate to the task in Iraq and needs to be larger. His position on the subject has been long-standing, and it is unlikely that he will change his public view, even if he becomes the Republican nominee and finds his call for more force in Iraq to be deleterious to his campaign. McCain’s positions on issues tend to be strongly felt and infrequently altered.
But even if he becomes president, he may find that increasing the U.S. force in Iraq will be difficult — if not impossible — to do.
First, there is a finite number of people in uniform to perform all the defense tasks required, and an increase in Iraq means that forces have to be drawn from other areas and other missions. There is already criticism from inside the military establishment that the important job in Afghanistan is suffering because too many troops are being employed in Iraq, and that the fight against the Taliban needs more muscle. Meanwhile, American military power is being seriously eroded by the mission in Iraq, and for the past five years we have had to depend on the National Guard and Reserves to help fill the ranks. This can’t continue forever.
In addition, Army combat tours are now 15 months, principally because there are not enough units to sustain a rotation of 12 months. This places a huge strain on people, units and equipment, and it’s so big a problem that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said reducing tours to being one-year terms is one of his objectives.
But there is only one way this can be accomplished: reduce the overall size of the American force in Iraq.
A mathematically impossible goal
If McCain becomes president, he will instantly be at loggerheads with military planners who will demonstrate that his goal is mathematically impossible. Even the planned increases in the sizes of the Army and Marine Corps will be insufficient to place a robust force in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time that tours of duty there are reduced in length. So McCain may be correct about how to fight in Southwest Asia, but it’s difficult to envision how he will get the resources needed to execute his strategy.
Of course, other candidates' plans are flawed as well. The leading Republican candidates generally seem to think that we can indefinitely continue what we’re doing now, which is nonsense. And those Democrats who advocate a rapid re-deployment on a strict timetable evidently have no understanding of how military operations are actually executed.
The Bush administration also wants to reduce the size of the mission in Iraq, and it wants to accomplish it this year. But, as the disagreement with the Iraqi government demonstrates clearly, this is very hard to do when we are also fighting the enemy, defending ourselves and training the Iraqis. Withdrawing forces when you have incomplete control of the terrain and have not destroyed the enemy completely means that you withdraw under duress, and that’s usually messy and dangerous.
So, however wrong he was about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, Secretary Powell was right about this: If you have no plan to win, employing military force is a very costly exercise.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.