Pentagon planners must be doing handstands over the news coming out of Samarra. Not only has the Iraqi city been wrested from the control of insurgents, U.S. operations included a significant contingent of Iraqi government forces. The simple math of manpower dictates that the U.S. must get assistance from non-U.S. forces to sustain America's global combat effectiveness.
The signs of stress on U.S. forces are already evident. For the first time since 1998 the Army has lowered recruiting standards. Now only 90 percent of recruits must be high school graduates, down from the previous standard of 92 percent. And the Pentagon now mulls reducing the standard combat tour of duty from 12 months to nine, or perhaps even less.
Both moves respond to the unrelenting demands on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cost of supporting them. In effect, the U.S. has drawn down its military capability trust fund over the past three years and must now rebuild it. The most vital part of that capability is the highly trained uniformed force that makes the U.S. the world's only superpower.
Tweaking the recruiting standards addresses the needs of that force at the front-end, making sure there are enough boots to muster. Next year the Army wants 80,000 new soldiers for the regular Army and 22,000 more for the Reserves. Reducing the length of combat tours would presumably address the back-end of the issue, trying to preserve the combat effectiveness of individual units for as long as possible.
But reducing the length of tours comes with its own unique costs. U.S. commanders could find themselves with units constantly trying to get up to speed on the nuances of their latest deployment. There would also be increased logistical costs associated with shuttling units in and out of combat on a more frequent basis. More wear and tear on those units and equipment, particularly airlift capabilities, would have to be absorbed. In short, shorter tours trade one set of problems for another.
What U.S. commanders clearly want, and what operations in Samarra point to, is a time when U.S. forces no longer comprise the vast majority of troops in the field. In Samarra, an American armor and mechanized force of 3,000 evidently punched a hole for some 2,000 Iraqi National Guardsmen and special police forces. Significantly, the Iraqis were tasked with seizing sensitive Muslim holy sites and reportedly did so.
This outcome conforms much more to the grand Pentagon plan for post-Saddam Iraq than the urban guerilla war the U.S. has fought month after bloody month. The "enduring bases" plan for Iraq also suggests an almost Wild West chain of forts, with the U.S. cavalry ready to sprint out to face down particularly grave threats. That would represent at least a chance at a sustainable U.S. presence in Iraq for years to come.
But even apparent successes like Samarra cannot immediately reverse the dire manpower shortage the U.S. now confronts. The Army National Guard, vividly transformed by the war in Iraq from weekend warriors with money for college tuition into front-line combat soldiers, has just missed its recruiting targets for the year. Service in the Guard may never look quite the same after Iraq.
The individual ready reserve, a pool of former military men and women numbering some 111,000, exists to meet national emergencies. The IRR has just been hit with a call-up of 5,600. Another set of 5,600 is slated to be called up next year. Most of those call-ups will mean a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Tearing thousands of men and women out of civilian life and sending them to war is more than a nation at war. It is a nation at a crossroads.