Washington Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.
Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.
As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump - missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 - and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives.
"You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.
'Thin Green Line'
Illustrating his level of concern about strain on the Army, Krepinevich titled one of his report's chapters, "The Thin Green Line." He wrote that the Army is "in a race against time" to adjust to the demands of war "or risk 'breaking' the force in the form of a catastrophic decline" in recruitment and re-enlistment.
Col. Lewis Boone, spokesman for Army Forces Command, which is responsible for providing troops to war commanders, said it would be "a very extreme characterization" to call the Army broken. He said his organization has been able to fulfill every request for troops that it has received from field commanders.
Krepinevich did not conclude that U.S. forces should quit Iraq now, but said it may be possible to reduce troop levels below 100,000 by the end of the year. There now are about 136,000, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
For an Army of about 500,000 soldiers - not counting the thousands of National Guard and Reserve soldiers now on active duty - the commitment of 100,000 or so to Iraq might not seem an excessive burden. But because the war has lasted longer than expected, the Army has had to regularly rotate fresh units in while maintaining its normal training efforts and reorganizing the force from top to bottom.
Krepinevich's analysis, while consistent with the conclusions of some outside the Bush administration, is in stark contrast with the public statements of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior Army officials.
Army Secretary Francis Harvey, for example, opened a Pentagon news conference last week by denying the Army was in trouble. "Today's Army is the most capable, best-trained, best-equipped and most experienced force our nation has fielded in well over a decade," he said, adding that recruiting has picked up.
Rumsfeld has argued that the experience of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Army stronger, not weaker.
"The Army is probably as strong and capable as it ever has been in the history of this country," he said last month. "They are more experienced, more capable, better equipped than ever before."
Krepinevich said in the interview that he understands why Pentagon officials do not state publicly that they are being forced to reduce troop levels in Iraq because of stress on the Army. "That gives too much encouragement to the enemy," he said, even if a number of signs, such as a recruiting slump, point in that direction.