The president declared during his prime-time speech on Thursday night that there may be a drawdown of some 30,000 soldiers -- or roughly five combat brigades -- by next summer. That would return in-country troop levels to what they were before the surge.
What Bush didn't and couldn't say was that there will have to be a drawdown.Not that the Reserves aren't a tempting target.
This is because the 15-month tours of duty for these brigades will begin to expire next April, there are no units to replace them, the Army secretary and service chiefs refuse to extend duty tours any further, and for all of his reckless and knuckleheaded actions over the last four-plus years, even the president knows that he cannot not mobilize the Reserves.
As Fred Kaplan notes in a Slate commentary, Army chiefs have the statutory authority to mobilize up to a million Reservists, most of them retirees, but that is something that even Lyndon Johnson did not resort to when faced with a similar quandry in the depths of the Vietnam War.
Johnson dealt with the troop shortfall by expanding the draft, which Bush of course does not have the option of doing.
A Reserve call-up would be predicated on the concept that it would be vital to the national interest, but it is beyond obvious that the Iraq war is an enormous sucking chest wound that serves no one's interests beyond the White House's discredited political agenda. The disruption to American society from a wholesale call-up would make the disruptions that communities have felt -- as well as their exposure to greater harm during natural disasters and other emergencies -- because of mobilizations of National Guard units to serve in Iraq seem like chump change.
So President Bush is left with no good options, only empty rhetoric about emboldening the very terrorists his war created if there are premature troop withdrawls.The beating that the Army's materiel has taken in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, also has had equally serious consequences.
Army depots are working 20 hours a day, six days a week to repair broken and damaged Humvees, tanks and other vehicles, and there is a severe shortage of equipment at home for troops to train on.
So how and who will fix the Army?
With the U.S.'s open-ended commitment in Iraq, that question cannot be answered except to note that it will take years even if there are no other conflicts of consequence to fight. As it is, the Army -- as well as the Marines -- would be unable to muster an effective fighting force to go into . . . Iran.
A bit of a mess, wouldn't you say?
Photograph by Michael Kamber for The New York Times