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     Sep 27, 2006
The diminished dividends of war
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - With the US intelligence community agreed that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have made the United States less safe from terrorist threats, President George W Bush appears to be facing a growing revolt among top military commanders who say their ground forces are stretched close to breaking point.

According to Monday's Los Angeles Times, the US Army's top officer, General Peter Schoomaker, has called for a nearly 50% increase in spending, to nearly US$140 billion, in 2008 to cope

with the situation in Iraq and maintain minimal readiness for emergencies.

To convey his seriousness, Schoomaker reportedly withheld the army's scheduled budget request last month in what the Times called an "unprecedented ... protest" against previous rejections by the White House of funding increases.

And this week, several retired senior military leaders told Senate Democrats that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should go, arguing that he had mishandled the war in Iraq. The former soldiers claimed that Rumsfeld had ignored advice for more troops, failed to make a post-invasion plan or equip troops properly, and hid information from the public.

The news of Schoomaker's action, which is almost certain to intensify the debate over what to do in Iraq just seven weeks before the November 7 mid-term congressional elections, comes just days after the New York Times reported that the army was considering activating substantially more National Guard troops or reservists.

Such a decision, which would run counter to previous Bush administration pledges to limit overseas deployments for the Guard, would pose serious political risks for the Republicans if it were made before the elections.

Unlike career soldiers, the National Guard consists mainly of "citizen-soldiers" with families and jobs and deep roots in local communities. When the Pentagon last called up substantial numbers of Guard units for service in Iraq and Afghanistan in late 2003 and 2004, the move elicited a strong backlash in communities across the country.

With the Iraq war even less popular now than it was then, any major new call-up is likely to trigger renewed protests, particularly in light of the growing sense both among the national-security elites and the general population that the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq was a major mistake and that the war is unwinnable.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the US public has become increasingly pessimistic about the war's outcome and its impact on the larger "global war on terror".

This month, for example, a New York Times/CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents believed the war in Iraq was going either "somewhat" (28%) or "very" badly (33%).

For most of the past year, a majority of respondents in various polls have said they believed the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake and that it had made the US less, rather than more, safe from terrorism.

The fact that a similar conclusion was reportedly reached by the 16 agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that make up the US intelligence community in April in a rare National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is likely to add to the public's pessimism.

The NIE, some of the contents of which were leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post over the weekend, found that the Iraq war had invigorated Islamic radicalism worldwide and aggravated the terrorist threat faced by the US and other countries.

While the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, insisted on Sunday that the newspaper accounts of the report's conclusions were partial and selective, they nonetheless backed up what a number of former senior intelligence analysts - most recently, the retired head of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, Emile Nakhleh - have been saying individually for much of the past year.

While Democratic lawmakers called on Monday for the Bush administration immediately to declassify the NIE, "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States", so that the public could decide for itself, it is certain to intensify the debate about whether to begin withdrawing from Iraq or whether to "stay the course" there despite the growing sectarian violence and the wear and tear on US ground forces.

For most of the past year, the administration and senior military commanders have expressed hope that they could reduce US forces in Iraq from the approximately 140,000 troops who were there last December to help protect the parliamentary elections by as many as 30,000 by the end of this year.

But with the rise in sectarian violence, particularly in Baghdad, that followed the bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, Washington has been forced to abandon those hopes. Last week, the senior US Middle East commander, General John Abizaid, made it official when he told reporters in Washington that he needed at least 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring.

Even this number of troops, however, has not proved sufficient to curb the violence in Baghdad, while a recent report from the senior Marine Corps intelligence officer in al-Anbar province, which comprises about one-third of Iraq's total territory, warned that the 30,000 US troops deployed there could not defeat the Sunni insurgency without the addition of at least 13,000 personnel and substantially more economic assistance.

Adding to the burden on the army and the marines, the resurgence of the Taliban has forced Washington to cancel plans to reduce forces in Afghanistan from 19,000 earlier this year to about 16,000 by autumn.

Instead, Washington currently has more than 20,000 troops deployed there amid signs that more may be needed if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization fails to provide more troops of its own or if, in light of the retreat of Pakistani forces from neighboring Waziristan, the Taliban mount an even bigger offensive from across the border next spring after the snows melt.

These commitments have taken a huge, unanticipated toll on US land forces, not just in manpower, but in equipment and money as well.

Before the war in Iraq, the Pentagon's political appointees confidently predicted that the Middle Eastern country's oil production would very quickly pay for the invasion's financial costs and that Washington could draw down US forces to as few as 30,000 by the end of 2003.

In fact, about $400 billion - almost all of it for military operations - has been appropriated for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since September 2001, and current operations there are running at about $9 billion a month.

The US Army, which has some 500,000 active-duty soldiers, has been allocated $98 billion this year, and the White House has cleared it to receive $114 billion for 2008. But Schoomaker has reportedly asked for $139 billion, including at least $13 billion to repair equipment. "There's no sense in us submitting a budget that we can't execute, a broken budget," he warned recently in a speech in Washington.

In addition to strains on both the land forces and their equipment, senior military leaders are also worried about attrition among mid-ranking officers, in particular, and the quality and cost of new recruits.

The military has greatly intensified its recruitment efforts, relaxed its age and education requirements for enlistment, and offered unprecedented bonuses and benefits packages - worth thousands of dollars - to enlistees and active-duty soldiers who re-enlist.

It has also increased enlistments by individuals with "serious criminal misconduct" in their records and eased requirements of non-citizens - of which there are currently about 40,000 in the US armed services - and made them eligible to citizenship after only one day of active-duty service.

(Inter Press Service)


US troops in Iraq are Tehran's 'hostages' (Sep 22, '06)

Iraq: Trying to spin the unspinnable (Sep 20, '06)

Coaxing the unwilling (Sep 16, '06)


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