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Editorial

Rebuilding the Army

Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page B06

ADAY AFTER President Bush bluntly ruled out an "artificial timetable" for withdrawal from Iraq, the Pentagon delivered a sobering follow-up: While the 15,000 additional U.S. troops deployed for last Sunday's elections will be withdrawn, the 17 remaining brigades -- 135,000 soldiers and Marines -- will be needed in Iraq at least through the end of this year. That estimate is understandable, given the continuing strength of the Sunni insurgency and the troubles in preparing Iraqi security forces. In fact, even the post-election reduction seems questionable, given that vital infrastructure and roads in Iraq, and even the highway from downtown Baghdad to the airport, remain insecure. Yet the alarming truth may be that the administration has little choice but to draw down troops: As it is, the present deployment in Iraq is on the verge of breaking an undermanned Army.

On Wednesday, senior military officials gave the latest in a series of alarming reports about the strain on the Army and Marines from two years of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carrying out a fourth rotation of troops into Iraq in the fall will be "painful," Gen. Richard A. Cody testified before the House Armed Services Committee; he suggested that it might necessitate breaking a rule that limits reservists to 24 months of active duty. Congressional pressure obliged the Pentagon to quickly prick that trial balloon, but the troops will have to come from somewhere. By the time the fall mobilization takes place, all 15 of the National Guard's most deployable brigades will have been mobilized, and some regular units may have to return next year for a third combat tour. Some are risking their lives involuntarily: "Stop-loss" orders for soldiers completing their service and the recall of some already discharged have created a backdoor draft.

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Predictably, it is getting harder and harder for the Army and Marines to recruit young men and women willing to bear such hardships. The Marines missed their recruiting goal in January for the first time in a decade, and all of the reserve corps except the Marines missed their recruiting goals in the first quarter of this fiscal year. The National Guard signed up barely half of the recruits it aimed for in January; its commander warned in December that unless it received $20 billion in new weapons and equipment, the force "will be broken." For several years policy experts and congressmen from both parties have been warning Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the size of the Army must be increased to meet the challenges of the war against terrorism, notwithstanding his pet doctrine -- developed before Sept. 11, 2001 -- of a smaller, lighter force. Now, thanks to Mr. Rumsfeld's stubborn refusal to listen, a crisis is at hand.

The Pentagon may finally be conceding some ground: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that a temporary increase of 30,000 troops in the Army would be made permanent in the 2007 budget and that a quadrennial review of Pentagon doctrine getting underway would reconsider the size of the force. That's a step in the right direction, but more urgent action is needed. Last month a bipartisan group of former senior defense and security officials and policy experts delivered a letter to Congress recommending an increase in the active-duty Army and Marines together of at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years. If such a buildup does not appear in the administration's budget for next year, Congress should require it -- before the damage to the armed forces grows any worse.


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