Pentagon planners did handstands after the October 1 battle of Samarra. Even colicky Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld praised the operation as proof of the soundness of the Bush plan for Iraq. "What has to be done in that country is what basically was done in Samarra," he explained to the Council on Foreign Relations days after the battle.
Not only was the Iraqi city of 250,000 wrested from the control of insurgents, but U.S. operations included a rarity: a significant contingent of Iraqi government forces. That was the wellspring of the joy felt at the Pentagon. The simple, inexorable math of manpower dictates that the U.S. must get assistance from non-U.S. forces if it is to sustain America's global combat effectiveness. There is simply no alternative.
The signs of stress 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 is mulling reducing the standard combat tour of duty from 12 months to nine, or perhaps even less.
Both moves respond to the unrelenting demands on, and costs of, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In effect, the U.S. has drawn down its military capability trust fund during the last 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. In 2005 the Army wants 80,000 new soldiers for the regular Army and 22,000 more for the reserves. Reducing the length of combat tours presumably would 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 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 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 is a time when American troops no longer comprise the vast majority of soldiers in the field. In Samarra an American armor and mechanized force of 3,000 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 did so, winning the respect of local Iraqis in the process.
This outcome conforms much more to the grand Pentagon plan for post-Saddam Iraq than does the urban guerilla war the U.S. has fought month after bloody month. The "enduring bases" plan suggests an almost Wild West chain of forts, with the 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 alone reverse the dire manpower shortage. 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. That reserve has just been hit with a call-up of 5,600. Another set of 5,600 is slated to be called up in 2005. 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 battle signals more than a nation at war. It reveals a nation at a crossroads.?