The Army's top general said Tuesday he wants to reduce combat tours for U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months later this year — and hopes that sticks.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, told a Senate panel he would not embrace going back to the longer tours even if President George W. Bush decided to suspend troop reductions for the second half of the year. The Army is under serious strain from years of war-fighting, he testified, and must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible.
"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.
Casey, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq before taking the chief of staff job last spring, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that cutting the time soldiers spend in combat is an integral part of reducing the stress on the force.
He said he anticipates the service can cut combat tours from 15 months to 12 months this summer, as long as the president reduces the number of active-duty Army brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan to 15 units by July, as planned.
The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, pressed Casey on whether he could keep tour lengths at 12 months if Bush decides to suspend the troop reductions after reaching 15 brigades in July.
"We believe it will still be possible, even with the pause," Casey replied. When asked by Levin if that would hold true "regardless of the length of the pause," Casey, replied, "Yes."
However, the number of soldiers retained under the service's "stop loss" policy — which forces some soldiers to stay on beyond their retirement or re-enlistment dates — is unlikely to be reduced substantially.
"We are consuming readiness now, as quickly as we're building it," said Army Secretary Pete Geren, who also testified.
Geren also urged Congress to pass a $100 billion war spending bill, contending that the Army will run out of money by July.
A presidential veto?
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Army could probably last until August or September by transferring money from less urgent accounts. Army officials counter that this approach is inefficient and can cause major program disruptions.
The hearing came as the Senate headed toward a vote on whether to cut off money for the Iraq war within 120 days. The measure, by Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, was widely expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to pass.
The White House said the president would veto such a measure.
"This legislation would substitute the political judgment of legislators for the considered professional military judgment of our military commanders," according to an administration statement.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill is a good chance for the Senate to go on record again as refusing to cut off money for the war.
"All the more so will we oppose it when the fight in Iraq, by all accounts, is showing clear-cut tactical progress, and now, at last, some important political progress is also being made," McConnell said.
In recent months, violence in Iraq has declined and the Baghdad government has made small steps toward political reconciliation, including plans to hold provincial elections on Oct. 1. While Democratic voters remain largely against the war, the security improvement has helped to cool anxiety among Republicans and stave off legislation demanding that troops start coming home.
With Feingold's bill almost assured to fail and lacking a veto-proof majority in Congress even if such a proposal passed, Democrats are talking about whether to shift their strategy. Instead of repeating losing votes on legislation tying money to troop withdrawals, many party members want to focus more on the policy issues surrounding Iraq, including the preparedness of U.S. troops and reining in private contractors.
Another desire by many Democrats is to tie the ailing economy to the war. A coalition of anti-war groups said this week that it plans to spend more than $20 million this year to convince voters that the Republican party's support for the war is bad for their wallets.
Still, other Democrats, including Feingold say they want to pursue more votes to end funding for the war.
"Keeping our troops in Iraq will not solve Iraq's problems, and it won't help us address the growing threat posed by al-Qaida around the world," Feingold said.