US is stretched too thin, top
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - US forces are stretched perilously thin from the Middle East to
Northeast Asia, and top-level US military planners are trying to do something
before yet another conflict flares up beyond the strength and ability of the
Pentagon to do anything about it.
That's the central message of General George W Casey Jr, installed as army
chief of staff in April after nearly three years as commander of US forces in
Iraq and just back from another quick
look at the country.
Casey, talking at the National Press Club in Washington, admitted that "today's
army is out of balance" with "soldiers stretched by the demands of the present
deployment" - and a support system designed for the era before September 11,
2001, when al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked US passenger jets for flights into New
York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Casey, who has never served in Korea and just missed the Vietnam War, in which
his father, a US division commander and major-general, died in a helicopter
crash, said he believed US air and naval forces could deal with any outbreak in
Korea even as US Army units pull back to a new base south of Seoul.
Nonetheless, in remarks to this reporter before and after his press-club
appearance on Tuesday, Casey characterized North Korea as "a wild card" -
recognition of the volatility of the long standoff in Korea despite the
inter-Korean summit coming up this month and the agreement in February for
Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.
The crux of the problem, as military analysts have noted, is that the United
States may not have enough manpower to wage very different types of war on
far-removed fronts. While more than 160,000 troops are pinned down in a war
that shows no sign of ending in Iraq, the US is reducing its forces from their
present level of 29,000 in Korea to slightly more than 20,000, with another
33,000 troops in Japan.
Ideally, Pentagon planners see US forces in Asia as "mobile" and "flexible"
enough to be able to take off from bases in Korea and Japan to counter threats
anywhere. Quite aside from political opposition in both countries, however, the
US military establishment faces acute problems of size, organization and
"We have to continue to preserve our soldiers for success in combat," Casey
said at the press club. "We need to reset forces expeditiously to prepare for
Behind the verbiage was the realization that US forces in Iraq are tiring, that
the army is having trouble finding volunteers, and that the Pentagon is in
danger of seriously avoiding or overlooking problems elsewhere.
Casey himself has been the target of criticism for having loyally pursued the
policy dictates of the White House and Department of Defense while Donald
Rumsfeld was defense secretary. Pentagon critics have accused him of failing to
provide realistic leadership and advice as security worsened and US casualties
Casey's remarks suggested the urgency of the need to upgrade the US armed
forces before much worse problems arise in largely unforeseen conflicts. "We
will continue to transform the army to meet the demands of the 21st century,"
said Casey. "We need to continuously modernize the army. We need to change the
Cold War organization into an organization that is agile and able to adapt."
Casey's remarks indicated to military analysts that the problems in outmoded
thinking as well as logistics and equipment that some observers think are
partly responsible for US military problems in Iraq would likely become much
more serious in conflagrations elsewhere.
Without making any public accusations, Casey hinted at the need to change a
Cold War mindset that has been hindering US forces since the outset of the
Vietnam War more than 40 years ago. He cited efforts at upgrading surveillance
and weapons systems, making them lighter as well as stronger.
Casey was clearly concerned that his plea for modernization would be largely
ignored while the problems of US forces festered and worsened. "If the demands
don't go down over time," he said, "it will be increasingly difficult for us to
meet those demands."
Casey walked a fine line, defending the performance of US forces in Iraq while
admitting the dangers the war places on the ability and strength to fight
elsewhere. He said he does not believe the US will have to resort to drafting
soldiers, despite recruitment problems. The length of tours of soldiers in Iraq
have to increase, he said, but he opposes extensions beyond 90 days.
Above all, he emphasized, is the need for "flexibility" unfettered by
limitations that some members of Congress are asking on how long soldiers can
serve in Iraq and when the US should withdraw all its forces. "Any external
restrictions make it very difficult," he said, touching politely on a
politically sensitive issue in which the White House and Pentagon are fighting
moves by the Democratic Party-controlled Congress to wind down the US
Casey was equally anxious to justify the "surge" in which the US has
strengthened its commitment in Iraq, trying to convince Americans of the wisdom
of an intensified campaign finally to create enough security for Iraqi forces
to be able to take over when US troops finally leave.
"The 'surge' can be sustained through the spring without changes in
organization," he said, but "we need to fully equip our units", public
recognition that many US military units are carrying outmoded equipment.
Casey was confident that US forces could move from an essentially guerrilla war
to the type of war that a large industrial power might wage. "We're only able
to focus on the counterinsurgency aspects," he said. "Our units are operating
and fighting 24 hours a day," experience he believes will be "transferable to
conventional military operations".
He worried, though, about an unexpected terrorist strike on a scale far beyond
those of September 11, 2001.
"The thing that scares me the most is a terrorist organization deploying a
weapon of mass destruction in a major city," he said. "It's hard for me to
believe we're not in for decades of conflict and confrontation."
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.