As Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, puts the final touches on this week’s progress report to Congress, the battle lines in Washington are said to pit withdrawal-crazed Democrats against loyal Republicans aching to seize upon any signs of progress in the unpopular war. Yet Democratic efforts in Congress to change President Bush’s policy in Iraq came to naught this summer, and beyond rhetoric, there is little evidence that renewed legislative efforts in the fall will fare better.
In fact, the real fight raging over Iraq policy is not between Republicans and Democrats at all, but rather, inside the defense and national security establishment over how long America’s overstretched ground forces, still organized to fight and win wars quickly with overwhelming force, can sustain a postwar counterinsurgency and occupation in Iraq without cracking.
Much attention of late has focused on the political dilemma caused by the Bush administration’s stubborn resistance to the idea that more troops than it authorized were needed to do the job in postwar Iraq. National will clearly is flagging, and so the political dimension requires the president to show the belated “surge” is making real progress before his term ends.
Yet Petraeus, too, is in a race against time. After years of rotating American forces in and out of Iraq — some now on their fourth tours of duty — the system is nearing the breaking point. “We’re keenly aware of the strain that has been placed on the services,” Petraeus said last month. His deputy, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, put it more bluntly. “The surge, we all know, will end sometime in 2008, in the beginning of 2008, and we will begin probably a withdrawal of forces based on the surge.”
The military dilemma in Iraq today would strike a chord with the nation’s first general, George Washington. In December 1776, Washington’s army was depleted and demoralized, encamped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, and many of the “one-year regiments” of volunteers at its heart had lost more than 50 percent of their strength in the previous year. Public faith in the Revolution was waning, and on New Year’s Day, the one-year commitments most of his army had given would expire.
Washington knew he needed to do three things. First, he needed a military victory to shore up morale and show present and future soldiers that defeat was not imminent. Second, he needed to dispatch some of his best troops back home to help recruit a new, larger army to replace the one largely destroyed around New York in 1776. Finally, he needed to reorganize his force from one based on large regiments, whose officers and men he could no longer reliably sustain, into one based on larger, more flexible brigades.
Washington, of course, accomplished all three, crossing the Delaware with his newly formed brigades and smashing Britain’s Hessian mercenaries at Trenton and, just after the New Year, routing the British at Princeton. The seasoned officers he dispatched on recruiting drives also succeeded, raising an army that grew larger than its British and Hessian foes by the end of 1777.
So many of these same dynamics exist in Iraq today. American forces there hardly face the kind of crisis Washington did in 1776. Yet dwindling public support, an uncertain ability to continue raising troops for an unpopular war, and the need to show concrete results all hang over Petraeus, too.
Indeed, amid this race against time, the U.S. Army also is in the midst of a decade-long effort to reform its internal structure, one aimed at turning the brigade, a grouping of 3,000 to 5,000 troops, rather than the 10,000-18,000-strong division, into its most important organizational unit. The greater power of modern weaponry and far greater ability of commanders to communicate and locate each other on the battlefield allows fewer men to bring even greater firepower to bear than their old Cold War divisional equivalents.
For those attempting to understand the endgame situation in Iraq, monitoring this more complicated and jargon-strewn debate over military force structures, attrition and morale rates, and modularity, will prove challenging. But keep your eye on the ball. Whatever the pundits, bloggers, politicians and talking heads of left or right say in the next few months, the United States military itself concedes it is nearing the end of the line in terms of sustaining 160,000-plus troops in Iraq.
Why? It’s a reasonable question. The U.S. Army, after all, lists its active-duty strength at over 510,000, plus an additional 181,000 for the Marine Corps. Even accounting for the 197,000 American forces, including Navy and Air Force personnel, deployed elsewhere (primarily in Germany, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Spain), that still leaves some 494,000 ground troops presumably available to “sustain the surge.”
The answer lies in what Col. Henry J. Foresman Jr. recently called the “culture of overwhelming success in World War II.” Writing in the Armed Forces Journal, he argues that even after six years of “transformation” reforms aimed at making the Army lighter, more mobile and more lethal, its logistical tail and its home-based bureaucracy still reflect the 20th century mindset of large formations stacked up to smash the enemy’s large formations.
Increasingly, the “combat deployable” forces of the American military are lighter, more mobile and more lethal. Yet the ratio between war fighter and, say, Army accountant, is still a long way from “transformed.” William M. Arkin, a defense analyst who writes for the Washington Post, notes that “even in the Marine Corps, where every Marine `is a rifleman,’ there is a significant number of people (maybe one in five) who haven’t deployed to Iraq even once.” In the Army, the ratio, according to Pentagon statistics, is even wider.
This is not for lack of trying. Currently, new infantry recruits are getting the kind of signing bonuses ($20,000) that not so long ago would have preceded a promising career in Major League Baseball. Navy and Air Force personnel are being deployed after hasty training in infantry tactics. More and more “back end” duties are being contracted out to civilians. It is not often reported, but for every American soldier in Iraq, there is at least one civilian contractor, as well.
All of this, of course, is meant to maximize the effectiveness of what soldiers call “the pointy end of the sword.” But the rest of the sword, whether it is keeping the peace in Kosovo, manning Cold War outposts in Europe or Asia, or painting rocks at an armory in Morris County , has proven to be proportionately too large for the challenges of this century.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.