BY ROBERT D. NOVAK
FOR RELEASE: THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2004, AND THEREAFTER
MORE TROOPS NEEDED
WASHINGTON -- The New York Times Book Review of last Sunday received unusual attention in the Pentagon's corridors this week. The review of "In the Company of Soldiers" by Washington Post war correspondent Rick Atkinson reveals the ridiculously low estimate made by the Pentagon's civilian leadership of troops needed in Iraq. Those words echoed eerily amid news of open fighting in Baghdad between U.S. troops and Shiite militia.
In the "afterword" following his brilliant account of the actual war, Atkinson wrote: "Pentagon planners in early May had predicted that U.S. troop levels would be down to 30,000 by late summer (of 2003)." That was the first time that prediction had been seen in print by startled readers at the Defense Department. The existing 125,000 troop-level (currently at 135,000 because of replacements) is considered inadequate by the generals. Gen. John Abizaid, the regional commander-in-chief, is not a yes-man and has made clear he will ask for more troops if his subordinate commanders need them.
But Afghanistan also needs more troops. So, where will they come from? Nobody knows, and that connotes an overcommitment by the U.S. and a miscalculation at the Defense Department. The uniformed military does not speak out publicly, but the generals are outraged. A former national security official who held high office in previous Republican administrations considers the relationship at the Pentagon between civilians and the military as worse than at any time in his long career.
At the heart of this debate is the original belief by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's team that conquering U.S. troops would be welcomed by open arms in Iraq. In this highly political season, Democrats are replaying the debate of a year ago. Gen. Eric Shinseki, then about to leave as the Army's chief of staff, said "several hundred thousand soldiers" could be needed in Iraq. "Way off the mark," retorted Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
Adhering to the principle of civilian control of the military and unvarying obedience to orders, the generals have not publicly expressed their opinion that Shinseki was much closer to the truth than Wolfowitz. However, the widely respected Abizaid made clear Monday that he was not going to be the fall guy if conditions in Iraq further deteriorate. If commanders want more troops to fulfill their mission, he will ask for them. That would leave Rumsfeld with no choice. The secretary announced on Tuesday that the generals "will get what they ask."
The problem of where to find these troops is not easily solved. There are simply no large units available and suitable for assignment. The 3rd Infantry Division was sent home early, but is now in the midst of Rumsfeld's "transformation" (from three brigades to five) and so is not ready to be inserted into combat. National Guard brigades could be activated, but the need for full training before going to war means they cannot help resolve the present crisis.
Democrats have demanded the use of foreign troops, but countries that previously refused to help without a United Nations mandate have not changed their minds. Britain announced Tuesday it was replacing an armored brigade, keeping their contribution at the present level of 8,700 troops but not adding any. Spain's new leftist government wants out. That leaves only Turkey willing to help, but the U.S. has ruled that out in the face of fierce Kurdish opposition.
Although underestimating troop needs in a less political environment would mean fixing the blame at the Pentagon, every issue today becomes a test of party loyalty. Sens. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, the top two Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are assailed by the White House for offering constructive criticism. With Sen. Edward M. Kennedy setting the Democratic line by saying that "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam," sensible dialogue is impossible.
While Democrats roar, the generals are silent -- in public. Many confide that they will not cast their normal Republican votes on Nov. 2. They cannot bring themselves to vote for John Kerry, who has been a consistent Senate vote against the military. But these generals say they are unable to vote for Don Rumsfeld's boss, and so will not vote at all.