The announcement that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be increased to 150,000 during the prelude to Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 is a bow to realism. It would probably be too much for this administration to acknowledge what the move tacitly admits: that previous troop levels have been insufficient for tasks that have proved more difficult than our top leaders let on.
The new troop strength is being accomplished by adding 1,500 new troops and extending the commitment of 10,500 others.
Wednesday’s move, in fact, was a second installment in a belated, almost covert recognition of reality, said Marina Ottaway, who specializes in democracy and post-conflict reconstruction issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In October, 6,500 U.S. troops were ordered to extend their tours of duty in Iraq
At some point it might well become necessary to rethink the mission in Iraq, to bring it more in line with a realistic assessment of current U.S. resources and will. The alternative would be to increase the size of U.S. military forces substantially, which might or might not be politically feasible.
Here’s the basic concern: Ideally, military commanders like to have three times the number of troops deployed in a given theater available for rotating deployments. The idea is that at any given time a third of those troops are actually deployed, a third are training to be deployed, and a third are doing rest and rehabilitation after coming home, as the first stage in preparing to go overseas again. This regimen can be altered or speeded up, of course, but it’s the preferred way to go.
Thus to support a need for 150,000 troops in Iraq at a given time, you would need 450,000 troops dedicated to Iraq. But Congress just increased the mandated size of the Army from 482,000 to 502,000, and troops are deployed in places other than Iraq. To be sure, many of the troops in Iraq are Marines (of which there are about 175,000 total). But if 150,000 troops are going to be deployed in Iraq on a long-term basis, the military will be somewhat stretched and other missions might not get the resources they require.
Add to that a concern whose reality is not yet known. Extending deployments repeatedly could have an adverse impact on morale, which could have an impact on both recruitment and retention. It’s too early to know for sure whether such concerns are overblown, but they are worth considering.
The period between now and Jan. 30 is likely to be perilous, as insurgents step up efforts to disrupt or prevent an election. We’re glad to see the number of troops increased, but hope it is a short-term proposition as the mission is redefined to de-emphasize U.S. duties and emphasize Iraqi responsibilities for their country.