WE NEED more troops, President Bush acknowledged in a news conference Wednesday. But do we need more troops in Iraq?
The President announced his intent to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps just days after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld departed the Pentagon. I doubt the timing was coincidental.
I'm among those who think this is a decision that ought to have been made on Sept. 12, 2001. We had 18 divisions in the active Army at the end of the first Gulf War. President Clinton reduced these to 10. I thought at the time this was dangerously low, but it was possible (though foolish) in the late 1990s to imagine a long era of peace.
After 9/11, this was no longer possible. But Secretary Rumsfeld resisted more than token increases in the end strengths of the Army and Marine Corps.
Mr. Rumsfeld feared the high cost of military manpower - it costs about $100,000 to keep a single soldier in the field for a year - would drain away funds badly needed for force modernization. A leaner, more agile force taking full advantage of modern technology would be more effective, he believed.
Another problem with increasing the size of the force is maintaining its quality. Recruits to our All Volunteer Force currently have much higher IQs and levels of education than the youth population as a whole. But the more the force is expanded, the more marginal applicants would have to be accepted.
"Smaller, faster, better" worked well in the march on Baghdad. But a force designed for blitzkrieg is poorly designed for the kind of counterinsurgency war we've found ourselves in since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Counterinsurgency is by its nature manpower intensive. A large number of troops is required to maintain presence in contested areas. And because insurgencies tend to go on for a long time (the average length in modern times has been about seven years) troop units need to be rotated in and out.
The President's remarks indicate he understands the war on terror is going to last a long time, and that more of its battles will resemble those we're fighting now than those we fought in the spring of 2003.
Since it would take about two years to recruit, train, and equip additional brigades, expansion of the Army and Marine Corps comes too late to influence the decision the President is contemplating to "surge" U.S. troops in Iraq.
An American Enterprise Institute study directed by retired Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane and former West Point professor Frederick Kagan recommends temporarily increasing U.S. troop levels by five to seven brigades to secure contested neighborhoods in Baghdad and Ramadi.
The main reason why there has been no troop surge in the past is because neither Secretary Rumsfeld nor the senior generals he chose were in favor of it. Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander, and Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, think our primary mission should be training Iraqi security forces. General Keane and Mr. Kagan think it should be protecting Iraqi civilians.
But our strategic options in Iraq have been limited by the relatively small size of the Army and Marine Corps. Some think the size of the surge recommended by General Keane and Mr. Kagan is too small to accomplish their goals. But it is the utmost our overstretched forces can muster.
A better strategy will improve our prospects for victory. But the best strategy won't work unless we provide our troops with the resources required to execute it.
President Bush has said from time to time that the preservation of our way of life is at stake in the war on terror. But you couldn't tell that from our spending priorities. In 2003, we ranked 47th among the world's nations (the vast majority of which are not at war) in the percentage of gross domestic product we spend on the military. The percentage of total federal expenditures devoted to defense is near a historic low.
Currently, we spend about 3.9 cents of every dollar our economy produces on defense. In Jimmy Carter's first budget, we devoted 4.7 percent of GDP to defense. In Bill Clinton's first budget, we spent 4 percent of GDP on defense.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it would not have been difficult to obtain from Congress the funds required both to modernize the military, and to expand the Army and the Marine Corps to the size required to fight the war. But now, with a Democratic Congress and a public weary of war, it will be much harder.
We can afford both a bigger military and a better military. Given what's at stake, we can't afford not to have both.