Washington's recent decision to withdraw an army brigade of approximately 3,600 soldiers from South Korea in order to redeploy it in Iraq emphasizes the strain on the U.S. military caused by the Bush administration's March 2003 decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
The decision to redeploy the brigade, part of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division, will make little tactical difference to Washington's ability to defend South Korea from a North Korean attack; nevertheless, the decision has symbolic importance since it demonstrates Washington's continued difficulty in stabilizing Iraq in addition to highlighting the strain that the occupation is causing to U.S. soldiers.
While it was expected that contingents of U.S. troops would remain in Iraq for years after the U.S. invasion was completed, it was not expected that over 100,000 troops would be necessary for this mission. The U.S. military, which is composed of an all-volunteer force, is not suited to handle large-scale missions for long periods of time. As U.S. Representative John Spratt of South Carolina warned late last year, "We are pushing the envelope. We are using our troops pretty much to their maximum utility."
Indeed, U.S. troops are spread so thin that the Pentagon announced on June 2 that the Army would expand its "stop-loss" program, meaning thousands of soldiers who planned on retiring from the military will now be forced to extend their terms of service and join their units in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. This controversial decision raises broad implications since it challenges present conventions of an all-volunteer military force.
Criticism of the "stop-loss" program was most publicly aired in a recent edition of the New York Times, where a former Army captain, who recently served in Afghanistan, stated, "Many, if not most, of the soldiers in this latest Iraq-bound wave are already veterans of several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have honorably completed their active duty obligations. But like draftees, they have been conscripted to meet the additional needs in Iraq."
Furthermore, since U.S. troops are being used to their "maximum utility," the Pentagon has been forced to rely on reserve and National Guard soldiers for combat missions, rather than for their traditional combat support roles. The duration and danger now involved in reserve and National Guard deployments has angered many segments of the military, since these soldiers usually have full-time civilian jobs and only perform military training one weekend a month and for two weeks in the summer. While their employers are obliged by law to take them back once they return from duty, they often find that their work opportunities suffer as a result of their extended time away. In a conflict as bloody as Iraq, the psychological damage on these soldiers can also be quite severe.
But it is the symbolism involved in Washington having to pull troops out of South Korea which has the most significance. This decision will spark many to argue that the Bush administration has made ill-fated policy choices that are causing damage to the U.S. military establishment and also to U.S. interests. Present conditions in Iraq mean that there will be no reduction in U.S. troop levels there for some time; if anything, there will need to be an increase in troops. On May 19, General John Abizaid, the chief of U.S. Central Command, warned that the U.S. "might need more forces [in Iraq]." Such an increase will add even further strain to present U.S. military deployments throughout the world.
The explanation for why there is such a strain on U.S. forces lies in the Bush administration's miscalculation of how easy it would be to administer the occupation of Iraq. From the start of the invasion there were a number of similar miscalculations, such as the failure to anticipate the extensive looting that took place after the fall of Saddam, the level of support U.S. soldiers would receive from the Iraqi population, and the ferocity and diversity of the insurgency.
What the Bush administration now faces in Iraq is far different from what it had planned for. It has been over a year now, and the insurgency has grown in size, and its strength has not been diminished. And now, even though Iraq may achieve some level of sovereignty on June 30, U.S. military commanders are predicting that the insurgency will likely become more deadly after that point. Abizaid recently announced, "I would predict … that the situation will become more violent even after sovereignty because it will remain unclear what's going to happen between the interim government and elections. So moving through the election period will be violent and it could very well be more violent than we're seeing today."
Abizaid's prediction is right on the mark. The fact remains that the most difficult stages in Iraq's post-war development have yet to occur. Since the end of the U.S.-led invasion in May, Iraq's three main ethnic/religious groups -- Sunni Arabs, Shi'a Arabs and Sunni Kurds -- have largely waited to see what the future political structure of the country would be. Up until recently, the three primary parties involved largely refrained from violence and waited to see whether their interests would be realized through the U.S.-led coalition's policy decisions. Of course, violence did occur -- most likely from former members ofthe military establishment and discharged Ba'athists -- but, by and large, no general uprising took place until later in the occupation when some of the country's Shi'a, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, revolted against U.S. rule.
Therefore, because the most difficult decisions have yet to be made -- involving the exact nature of Iraq's new government structure -- it is uncertain how intense the level of violence will become. Once the moment of final judgment arrives, then the parties involved who disagree with the outcome will begin to resist that conclusion, most likely through violence. That day may start on June 30.
If June 30 marks a new date of increased violence and chaos within Iraq, U.S. forces are going to be incredibly taxed. Not only will they face violence from at least two of Iraq's main ethnic/religious groups, but U.S. troops could also face a nationalist uprising if Iraq's various insurgents unite together in a marriage of convenience to attack occupation forces. There has already been evidence of this in the al-Sadr uprising. While such cooperation is currently limited, it could easily expand if hatred of the U.S. continues to spread.
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