92,000 More Soldiers?

Last week, most of the media’s and public’s attention was focused on President Bush’s announcement that he would be sending another 20,000-plus troops to Iraq – a move opposed by 70 percent of the American people. Nonetheless, the president refuses to let public opinion change his mind (he has famously said, "As to whether or not I make decisions based upon polls. I don’t.") and on CBS’ 60 Minutes proclaimed, "I’ve made my decision. And we’re going forward." And despite bipartisan criticism from Capitol Hill, there is probably no way for Congress to stop the president from pouring more troops into Iraq. According to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, "We have authority in the – we have money in the ’07 budget, which has been appropriated by the Congress, to move these troops to Iraq, and the president will be doing that."

Less, noticed, however was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recommendation that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps be expanded by 92,000 soldiers (65,000 and 27,000, respectively) over the next five years. This is considerably more than expanding the force by 7,000 soldiers a year to keep the Army from breaking under the strain of the Iraq deployment, as previously called for by outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker. So the current proposed troop surge of 21,500 soldiers in Iraq could just be the tip of the iceberg. After all, Gates is on record during his confirmation hearing that "the United States is going to have to have some presence in Iraq for a long time."

Or maybe more troops are needed for a potential showdown with Iran? When he announced his intention to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush also said, "Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops." Subsequently, U.S. forces raided the Iranian consulate in Irbil and arrested five men, claiming links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and aiding insurgents in Iraq. And Vice President Cheney’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of how he tried to make Saddam Hussein a target:

"And Iran’s a problem in a much larger sense. They have begun to conduct themselves in ways that have created a great deal of tension throughout the region. If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk about the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried, partly because of the conduct of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who appears to be a radical, a man who believes in an apocalyptic vision of the future and who thinks it’s imminent.

"At the same time, of course, they’re pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons. They are in a position where they sit astride the Straits of Hormuz, where over 20 percent of the world’s supply of oil transits every single day, over 18 million barrels a day.

"They use Hezbollah as a surrogate. And working through Syria with Hezbollah, they’re trying to topple the democratically elected government in Iran. Working through Hamas and their support for Hamas in Gaza, they’re interfering in the peace process.

"So the threat that Iran represents is growing, it’s multi-dimensional, and it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region."

While the need for expanding the armed forces by 92,000 ground troops is an important question, another important question is: Where would the soldiers come from?

The military is already having a hard time just keeping the current force in place. The Iraq mission has forced deployments to be extended, keeping troops in the field longer than their normal rotation. And to keep soldiers from leaving when their enlistments expire, the military has resorted to stop-loss orders to keep tens of thousands of soldiers. Recent Military Times poll numbers don’t bode well for retaining troops who have grown disillusioned with the Iraq war: only 35 percent of the military approved of the way President Bush is handling the Iraq war and 42 percent disapproved (the first time that more troops have disapproved than approved); only 41 percent thought the United States should have gone to war.

The good news for the Army and Marine Corps is that both services meet their active-duty recruiting goals for fiscal year 2006 – 80,000 and 32,302, respectively (both services have also meet their recruiting goals for the first three months of fiscal year 2007). But one price paid to meet recruiting goals has been lowering standards. For fiscal year 2006, nearly 4 percent (the maximum allowed by the Defense Department) of Army recruits scored below certain aptitude levels – so-called Category 4 recruits who represent the lowest end of the testing spectrum. More worrisome is the fact that about 17 percent of the Army’s recruits were accepted under waivers for medical, moral, or criminal problems. Accepting more Category 4 recruits and granting waivers allowed both services to only just barely meet their recruiting goals, so where are they going to find an additional 18,000 soldiers a year for the next five years?

Even if the Army and Marine Corps can find men and women to fill their ranks, there is also the question of cost. The Defense Department is already spending more than $450 billion a year in its baseline budget. Four defense supplemental requests to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have totaled $294 billion, and the most recent supplemental request is expected to be at least $99 billion. According to the Army, every additional 10,000 troops would cost about $1.2 billion a year. So adding 92,000 soldiers would cost about $110 billion.

If we were engaged in a war of national survival – such as World War II – the cost of recruiting soldiers to defend the country would not be an issue. But Iraq is not World War II. Nor is it the central front in the war in terrorism. Iraq was never a military or terrorist threat to the United States. It has now become someone else’s civil war and rather than continuing to be caught in the crossfire between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the United States should be thinking about how to get out – not about how to put more soldiers in or increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps to sustain the force in Iraq for years to come.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.