Will the discouraging raw numbers about military strength and readiness improve? Not about the Iraqi army, about ours. Recruitment for the U.S. military is at a 26-year low, and the standards for who gets in and who doesn't may shortly follow.
After missing its recruitment goal this year by nearly 7,000 troops, the widest margin since 1979, the Army has announced a revision of recruitment tactics. It is now accepting a greater number of less qualified applicants, doubling the amount of so-called Category 4 troops, those men and women who score low in the aptitude tests from 2 percent of the class to 4 percent.
On Tuesday, retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey appeared on 'Countdown' to discuss the issue with Keith Olbermann.
To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below, to watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Let's start with the U.S. Army. Your opinion on the new category four ruling?
RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, we're having some very significant recruiting difficulties. There's no question.
We're short 7,000 troops this year. Those are 7,000 privates that won't show up in our brigades next year, not 7,000 colonels. So, this is a tremendous shortfall. And it is even more significant and severe in the National Guard, which I think is starting to melt down.
Keith, the problem is the U.S. armed forces are at war. And so is the CIA, but the country is not at war. The recruiting challenge is principals, congressman, mayors and parents, not Marine and Army recruiting sergeants.
OLBERMANN: How do you overcome that? What does the military do to fix the recruiting shortage without bringing up that word draft again or resorting to a significantly lowered standard for the average soldier?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think one thing that is going to happen is, we are going to run out of military muscle to continue operating at this rate by next summer. We are going to have to draw down. We have got 17 combat brigades there now. I would be astonished if we can sustain probably more than 10. So, we'd better be doing pretty well next summer, because I think we are going to start encountering significant challenges in the Army and the Marine Corps within 12 months.
We also need some help out of Congress. Clearly, we need the tools to compete in the economy. Right now, there's a request in for signing bonuses of $40,000 for home loans for young people who stay in beyond three years. All this is very helpful, as are 3,000 new Army recruiting sergeants. But the challenge is, where is the political leadership, the school principals, the high school coaches, who will say to these young men and women, hey, we don't need you for a career in the armed forces; we need you to come in and fight; we're in trouble?
OLBERMANN: Let's look at the Iraqi army now. I don't remember the first time we talked about this issue of how ready they can be and how quickly, but it was a while ago. But, with all these conflicting numbers out there, can you assess it correctly? Where is the Iraqi army now in terms of readiness?
MCCAFFREY: Well, you know, we had Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus in charge of putting this force together. He's been replaced by a superb officer, Lieutenant General Marty Dempsey.
I think, mechanically, the process under way, I think the answer is probably 100 battalions exist, army, customs, border patrol, police. Probably, the number I'm using -- and I got a pretty good source -- 36 battalions are in reasonably competent shape to get out there and fight. Probably none of them can operate without U.S. logistical support, air support, that sort of thing. By next summer, there ought to be a lot more.
But, Keith, the key question isn't whether we can round up Iraqi soldiers. It is whether there's a government that will exist that they'll be willing to fight and die for. And that's really the question at hand between now and December.
OLBERMANN: So, looking at those two marks on the graph, obviously, the personnel one, you would think is relatively satisfactory. What about the political one?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think we're about to find out. I think, when I left there in July, I was pretty optimistic that the Sunnis had decided they had made a gross error in judgment in just fighting, that they would now try political means to move ahead. I still am hopeful that's the way it will come out. We may end up with a Shia-Kurd alliance, with much of the Sunni region in continuing rebellion.
That may not be an unacceptable outcome. If we can get a security force that will fight for 80 percent of Iraq, then we may be able to start a withdrawal, which we have got to do by next summer.