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A Few Good Words of Bad News

May 04, 2005

The admission by the nation's top general that the demands of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are hurting U.S. military readiness indicates that common sense continues to have its place. The blunt honesty of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, is a bracing change from repeated claims by Pentagon civilians and President Bush that everything is fine.

Myers reported to Congress this week that the armed forces would have more trouble this year than last in quickly winning a new major combat operation and would suffer higher casualties. That's a realistic reflection of the cost of tying up 140,000 troops, more than 10% of U.S. active-duty forces, in Iraq even as recruiting lags substantially. It also contrasts with Bush's statement at his press conference last week that when he asks Myers about strains on readiness the general says he "doesn't feel we're limited" and the military has "plenty of capacity."

The troops are having problems. The proposed Pentagon budget for the next fiscal year is $420 billion. Add in supplemental spending for Iraq and Afghanistan and it's about half a trillion dollars. Such enormous amounts of money have not bought security for the road from the Baghdad airport to downtown or information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or his acolyte in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

As for recruitment and reenlistment, a Denver television station reported last week that Army recruiters told a 17-year-old student (pretending to be a high school dropout with a drug problem) to lie about his background so he could enlist. All of it was right there on video. An Army officer said two recruiters were suspended and the allegations were being investigated, but recruiters elsewhere have told of being pressured to break the rules to bring in enlistees.

Myers' annual report concluded that the U.S. military would win any combat operation, but one official said, "We would have to win uglier." That's shorthand for more destruction and civilian casualties.

Myers' conclusion does not indicate a greater threat to this country, but it points to a more protracted and expensive campaign if hostilities break out elsewhere. For all the emphasis in recent years on unmanned aircraft and high-tech weapons, the problems of Afghanistan and Iraq should remind U.S. administrations of the bottom line for armies: feet on the ground. Precision-guided missiles are all but useless against improvised explosive devices at the side of the road and are of no use at all in building democratic institutions.

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