"Bush Lengthens Tours of Duty In Combat Zones --- Step May Further Strain Military, Vex Congress; Political Timing in Play?
Source: The Wall Street Journal 04/12/2007
WASHINGTON -- In a move sure to increase the strain on the Army and aggravate tensions with Congress over an already unpopular war, the Bush administration announced that all active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will spend 15 months in the combat zones instead of 12 months.
The military's need for the step is straightforward: It will allow the Bush administration to maintain the president's recently implemented "surge" of 30,000 troops in Iraq for at least another 12 months, if President Bush decides that is necessary.
But the announcement comes at an awkward time for the administration in its struggles to maintain both public and congressional support for the Iraq war. The White House is trying to resist growing public calls to set a timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq. The longer tours are also certain to ratchet up tensions with lawmakers as Congress and the White House move closer to open confrontation over an emergency war-spending bill, which Mr. Bush has promised to veto unless Democrats remove provisions calling for a pullout from Iraq next year.
Republicans acknowledged deep concern about a recent drumbeat of politically unpopular news about Iraq. On Monday, the Pentagon disclosed that 13,000 National Guard troops would soon be sent to Iraq, many for the second time, an announcement that sparked fierce criticism from governors and lawmakers from both parties.
From a long-term political standpoint, though, announcing those steps actually may help the White House manage the fallout. Some Republican congressional staffers argued that it may be better for the administration, already locked in a power struggle with Capitol Hill, to be sure all the difficult Iraq news emerges at once rather than in a steady stream of leaks and announcements to extend tours of troops as the 2008 election cycle grows closer. "It may be easier to take one big hit now than to suffer a death by a thousand cuts," said one senior Republican foreign-relations staffer.
Indeed, the Pentagon made no effort to downplay its decision, but rather had Defense Secretary Robert Gates announce it at a news conference. "This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step," Mr. Gates told reporters.
Democrats and a few Republicans were quick to criticize the move, arguing that the longer deployments would push the military closer to a breaking point. "The decision to extend the tours of U.S. service members by three months is an urgent warning that the administration's Iraq policy cannot be sustained without doing terrible long-term damage to our military," said Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Instead of escalating the war with no end in sight, we have to start bringing it to a responsible conclusion."
The Pentagon said the extension of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to 15 months would have one beneficial effect for troops: Mr. Gates said the step would help guarantee that military personnel will have at least 12 months at home to get equipment, see their families and train for any future redeployments. "Instead of dribbling out these notifications to units, what we're trying to do here is provide some long-term predictability for the soldiers and their families about how long their deployments will be and how long they will be at home," Mr. Gates said.
Senior military officials say troops should ideally get about two years at home between 12-month deployments to both rest up and prepare for the next round of fighting. In recent months the Army has struggled to field critical pieces of gear, such as the latest armored Humvees and some advanced surveillance equipment, to soldiers in time for their deployments. Because of the relatively short period of time between deployments, troops often are able to get only a rudimentary education in the culture and tribes of the areas to which they are being sent.
The heavy demand for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan also means there are few, if any, Army units back in the U.S. that are trained, equipped and ready to deal with other crises that might pop up around the world.
As a result, critics yesterday charged that extended tours in Iraq are breaking the Army. "The secretary's announcement extending the deployments of active-duty Army units is a stark admission that the administration's policies in Iraq are doing permanent damage to our military," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, (R., Neb.), who has been an outspoken critic of the war.
Mr. Gates rejected such suggestions, and pointed to the Army's ability to hit retention and recruiting goals as a sign that the service, while badly strained, isn't on the verge of breaking. "If the Army were broken, you would not see these kinds of retention rates and our ability to recruit," he said.
Still, the Army, which is currently in the process of adding 65,000 troops over the next five years to expand to an active-duty force of 547,000 soldiers, has had to pay a steep price to reach its recruiting goals in 2006, lowering standards to take a larger number of recruits who scored in the lower percentiles on aptitude tests or needed waivers of past criminal activity. The service has been able to meet retention goals for the enlisted ranks, but only by paying out about $735 million in retention bonuses in 2006 up from $85 million in 2003. Today, it is short about 3,000 active-duty officers, a deficiency that it says will grow to about 3,700 in 2008. It is down more than 7,500 reserve and National Guard officers, according to internal Army documents.
Yesterday's announcement doesn't necessarily indicate the administration will extend the surge of 30,000 troops into next year. Pentagon officials say they will re-evaluate their strategy in early fall. At the core of surge strategy is the belief that the extra troops can improve security and increase the chances that the current Iraqi government can win over an increasingly frustrated population.
"What we are doing . . . is buying time for the Iraqi government to provide the good governance and the economic activity that's required," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Gates hinted at some frustration with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is dominated by Shiite Muslim parties and has been slow to reach out to Sunni Muslim groups, an essential step to ending the war. Asked if he was happy with the pace of reconciliation, Mr. Gates replied, "I'd like to see it be moving faster." "