With President Bush calling for a troop-level "surge" in Iraq and Iraq's insurgents no doubt stocking up on surge protectors, politicians and talking heads are busy debating the effect a troop buildup might have on the outcome of the war. Will the escalation be an unmitigated disaster, they wonder? Or will it merely be a dismal and tragic failure?
The discussion about how the surge will affect Iraq is an important one, but it's obscuring another equally important discussion. How will the troop buildup in Iraq affect U.S. military operations outside of Iraq? The U.S. military has important commitments all over the globe. It conducts operations on every continent, including Antarctica. Just because penguins are cute doesn't mean we don't need to be vigilant.
Of the military's 39 active combat brigades, 15 are already in Iraq. If the Bush Push happens, that number will increase to 20. Numerous reports, from both inside and outside the Pentagon, have warned for a few years that the war in Iraq has dangerously overstretched the U.S. military. If 15 of 39 brigades in Iraq is overstretched, what's 20? Circus contortionist? Yoga instructor?
The problem that this troop escalation will create is that the more soldiers the Bush administration sends to Iraq, the fewer there are available for other vital missions.
Nowhere is the shortage of U.S. military manpower more apparent than in Afghanistan.
Baltimore Sun reporter David Wood recently reported that the Pentagon is redeploying U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan to Iraq at the same time that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are begging the Pentagon to send more.
Taliban forces made a dramatic comeback in Afghanistan last year. According to Wood, their attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces tripled last year. It's not just guerilla attacks, either. Taliban fighters are mounting frontal attacks against U.S. and NATO forces, a sign that they're confident in their ability to win battles.
The United States' unwillingness to commit the military resources necessary to stabilize Afghanistan and the economic resources necessary to rebuild it has helped drive a wedge between Afghanistan's government and its people. Instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, like it promised to, the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq and allowed Afghanistan to collapse into the same pit of chaos and warlordism that helped incubate the Taliban the first time around. In the words of a report by the International Crisis Group published in November, "The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation."
U.S. commanders expect Taliban forces to mount a spring offensive aimed at severing the road link between Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and its second-largest city and the Taliban's spiritual hometown, Kandahar.
The Bush Push into Iraq also cannibalizes the military's ability to protect U.S. homeland security because of the workload it has placed on state National Guard units.
The National Guard is a branch of the Army comprised overwhelmingly of part-time soldiers. Unlike the full-time, active-duty military, they are intended as a reserve force to be used in the event of emergencies. In peacetime, they are commanded by their state governors and are often among the first responders to local emergencies and disasters that are too big for police, fire and rescue workers to handle on their own. In a time of war, however, the president has the authority to commandeer the state National Guards and send them overseas. National Guard soldiers make up about one-third of the U.S. force in Iraq.
The National Governors Association complained to the Bush administration last year that the Iraq war has significantly hampered the National Guard's domestic readiness. In addition to taking up vital personnel, the war has also used up vital National Guard equipment. The Louisiana National Guard's slow response to the flooding of New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina was in part due to the fact that more than one-quarter of the state's National Guard personnel, and most of the state's best National Guard vehicles, were in Iraq.
On the day after Bush announced his troop-level increase plan to the nation, the Pentagon announced that it was abandoning its limit on the time National Guard and Reserve soldiers can be required to serve on active duty. That means more Guard units and more Guard equipment in Iraq, and less of it here.