One of President Bush's constant reassurances has been that if commanders in Iraq need more troops, they'll get them. Unless, of course, we don't have more, a caveat he never mentions.
This problem arises today in a dual context:
-- In Iraq, a Washington National Guard general says that he has twice asked for more troops to secure the perimeter of Logistical Support Area Anaconda, a 15-square-mile supply dump and support base 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. The Baltimore Sun (free site registration may be required) reports that the area is under fire so often that troops and contractors stationed there have dubbed it "Mortaritaville."
-- The paranoia among young people in this country (fed by Democrats for their own purposes), that a vote for Bush is a vote for a new draft.
First we go to LSA Anaconda:
Since May, Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman, commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Washington state that operates the base, has requested 500 to 700 more soldiers. But he said the request has been denied.
"Because the enemy is persistent, we need additional forces. We asked twice," said Hilman, who arrived here in April for a yearlong stint. But Hilman said he was told that "there are no additional forces," and that U.S. soldiers are needed elsewhere, particularly to battle insurgents and cover a large area to the north that includes the rebellious cities of Tikrit and Samarra.
The 81st Brigade's top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Robert Barr, said the soldiers here are frustrated, and that he often hears the same question: "Why aren't we stopping it or killing their guys who are doing it?"
The Sun reports that the request was kicked up the chain of command and was approved by Hilman's superiors at 13th Corps Support Command, but denied at the next level, Multi-National Corps Iraq headquarters. The problem: too many fires elsewhere in the country and not enough troops to control them.
The lack of sufficient boots on the ground is a well-known complaint both among troops in Iraq and critics of Bush's policies at home. The issue was raised before the first U.S. tank clanked in from Kuwait and has become one of the constant refrains among war critics.
However, does this mean the Bush administration intends to resurrect the draft if the president is re-elected? Bush emphatically said no last Friday in his second debate with John Kerry:
"Forget all this talk about a draft. We're not going to have a draft so long as I'm the president," Bush said.
Nonetheless, many young Americans seem to suspect otherwise:
The National Annenberg Election Survey found that 51 percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe Bush wants to reinstate the draft. Eight percent said Kerry supports bring back the draft, and 7 percent said both want to. A fourth of those polled said neither candidate favors the idea.
Both Bush and Kerry say they don't support a renewed military draft. Earlier this week, the House defeated a bill paving the way to a draft 402-2. House Republicans have sought to quash the persistent Internet rumor that the president wants to reinstate the draft if re-elected while Democrats have fanned the flames on the rumor.
"Young voters are much more misinformed about the presidential candidates' positions on the draft than the population in general," said Kate Kenski, an analyst at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Lacking anything other than candidates' statements, we can't be sure what will follow the election. My guess is that both Bush and Kerry are sincere when they say they don't want to bring back the draft (though Kerry has said he would increase the Army by two divisions by enlarging the present all-volunteer force). Restoring the draft would create a huge political problem for the party suggesting it, and neither wants that.
The unknown factor is the course of events in the months ahead. We know that our forces already are stretched beyond what is sustainable in the long term. Ten of the Army's 11 divisions are involved in Iraq in one way or another (with components there, leaving or returning). The U.S. has about 140,000 troops there, another 20,000 in Afghanistan and 230,000 others around the world, primarily in Europe, Japan and South Korea. The military has done about all it can within the confines of our current structure to maintain these deployments. Tours have been extended, active-duty personnel have been forbidden to leave the service and large re-enlistment bonuses are being offered to those already in uniform. Another tool, the so-called "backdoor draft" of National Guard troops is now being challenged in court.
Thus, as so often, events may dictate what happens next, regardless of what Bush or Kerry might prefer. Our current inflexibility leaves us one step short of having to take possibly drastic action to increase the size of the military.
If Iraq is able to hold meaningful elections in January, get its security forces trained and in place and begin moving forward on its own, then a door may open for gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops. If chaos continues its reign – or if U.S. troops are required to deal with a threat from Iran or North Korea, or to reestablish order in Pakistan if militants there are successful in overthrowing president Pervez Musharraf – then we'll probably have to do something quickly. A modest increase in force size may be achievable with volunteers. A major increase might very well require a return to conscription.
Young people may be paranoid for good cause. They may just be focused on the wrong reason.