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Defense Cuts Invite Someone to Test Our Will — and Power

My editorial in the new Weekly Standard criticizing plans to cut back defense, and especially to cut back ground forces, has sparked a fair amount of Internet chatter. Leaving aside the vast volume of ad hominem attacks (one of which I dealt with in my last post), much of the criticism has focused on two sentences.

Complaining about the 32 percent decline in army strength between 1991 and 2001, I wrote: “That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”

Then, suggesting that President Obama cannot be certain that there will not be some contingency in the near future that will require large ground forces, I wrote: “How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won’t be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops?”

Regarding the first point: critics say that Bush and his civilian and military officials decided to send a small force to Afghanistan and then Iraq not because of force constraints but because they were wedded to the ideology of the “small footprint.” There is a great deal of merit in this assertion, but even if they had been convinced that sending a large force was the way to go, they would have been hard-pressed to do so because of the post–Cold War cuts in army strength. Indeed as the Iraq war went along, it became clear that our force was too small to get the job done, but senior generals such as Casey and Abizaid did not push Rumsfeld to send more troops, in part because they thought there simply were not enough army troops available and they didn’t want to “break” the army. I recognize that they had other reasons for preferring to keep the force too small, but this was certainly a major part of their calculus.

Finally, in late 2006, Bush decided to disregard their (bad) advice and send more troops. He was able to send only five brigades when the architects of the surge had hoped for eight or nine at least. But there were only five available and even that was a stretch. Increasing our troop strength by just 30,000 required placing a huge strain on the force; many units were extended from 12-month deployments to 18 months, a long time to be in combat. Luckily, the five-brigade surge proved sufficient, but what if the situation had been so bad that we really needed eight or nine? In that case, we would have lost the war. That’s a risk we shouldn’t have to run.

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will.