US Army Overstretch

Operation Iraqi Freedom still has a way to go

Wed, Apr 30, 2008

The US military is suffering a high rate of attrition in Iraq . . . five years after George Bush declared victory there, writes Tom Clonan

ON THIS day five years ago, US president George Bush, as commander in chief of the US armed forces, landed on board the aircraft carrier USS George Lincoln off the Californian coastline near San Diego. In a highly symbolic and stage-managed event, he - in front of a large banner declaring "mission accomplished" - declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

These images of President Bush's declaration of victory were screened globally just days after the world viewed striking - and similarly stage-managed - images of the toppling of Saddam's statues in downtown Baghdad. This high point of the war in Iraq for the Bush administration would prove to be short-lived.

By May 1st, 2003, the US military had lost 139 personnel, killed in action in Iraq. Five years after the announcement of the end of major combat operations there, 4,052 US troops have been killed in action in Iraq. As of today, just under 30,000 US troops have been killed or seriously injured - medically evacuated from Iraq - arising directly from combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A further 30,000 or so have been repatriated to the US from Iraq during the same period due to non-combat injuries, illnesses and stress-related conditions.

US combat operations have not ceased during the past five years. Nor has the operational tempo of combat subsided. Indeed, as of November 2007, with the Iraq "Surge", US combat operations have increased in size and scope. On average, over the period of the Iraq war thus far, 500 US troops have been killed or seriously injured in combat in Iraq each month — a total of 6,000 per annum.

This attrition rate is being experienced by a small, all-volunteer force of about 150,000 US troops - the average size of America's commitment to Iraq over the past five years. This force of 150,000 consists of a "teeth to tail ratio" of one to four - or one combat soldier for every four command and control, logistics, communications and other support personnel required to shore up combat operations.

Therefore, there is a core group of approximately 30,000 US combat troops who carry out the patrols, man the checkpoints and conduct perimeter security for America's vital installations in Iraq. It is this core group that is targeted daily in Iraq by roadside bombs, suicide bombers, mortars and snipers.

The attrition rate - through death or serious injury in action - for this pool of combat troops in Iraq therefore represents 20 per cent for those deployed on a 12-month tour of duty on a front-line assignment. For those US troops whose tours have been extended to 15 months as part of Lieut Gen David Petraeus's Iraq surge, the attrition rate rises to 25 per cent.

In other words, within the US military's core fighting establishment, as many as one in four troops in Iraq can expect to become war casualties during their tour of duty. This is almost three times the attrition rate experienced by US troops during the war in Vietnam.

Five years on from President Bush's announcement of the cessation of major combat operations in Iraq, US forces remain locked in an ongoing high-intensity counter-insurgency programme against Sunni factions - including foreign fighters, former regime elements and cells of al-Qaeda drawn to Iraq since the US invasion. This programme has periodically escalated into full-scale urban combat in cities and towns such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad. Despite these operations, official US military sources within Operation Iraqi Freedom confirm that al-Qaeda, the Mujahideen Shura Council, the Sunni army of Ansar al-Sunnah and the Islamic Army in Iraq remain active threats to stability in Iraq.

In addition to the Sunni threat, Centcom (the US central command) also concedes that up to 100,000 heavily armed Shia militia, loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, pose a serious threat to Iraqi stability.

Centcom makes the uncomfortable observation on its Operation Iraqi Freedom website that there is "clearly potential for Shi'ite participation in violence" within Iraq with a strategy "remarkably similar" to that of groups such as Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus far, the US military has avoided direct sustained confrontation with Shia militias.

The US military has calculated an Iraq "exchange ratio" - a euphemism for US casualty statistics - of 1:10. In other words, the US military has built into planning models the projected loss of one US soldier "killed in action" for every 10 insurgents "neutralised" on the battlefield. Given the sheer numbers of Shia militia within Iraq, US military commanders in Baghdad know that to open a "second front" within Iraq on al-Sadr's "Mehdi army" or the Ayatollah's Badr Brigades would mean an unsustainable level of attrition for the US.

The US military is currently just about able to adopt a "holding pattern" in Iraq. In other words, it can just about secure the Green Zone, its forward operating bases and its supply lines. It has failed to provide a secure environment for the majority of ordinary Iraqis. Monday's mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone demonstrate quite clearly that the insurgency within Iraq is still active throughout its cities and rural hinterlands. Despite its very modest achievements in Iraq, America's all-volunteer army is feeling the strain of the five-year war there. Most of its major combat units are set to embark on their second, even third tour of duty in Iraq.

According to a report by the US National Security Advisory Group entitled The US Military, under Strain and at Risk, senior US commanders are fearful of a mass exodus of middle-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers from the US Army and Marine Corps should the current regime of repeat deployments continue. This would represent a catastrophic "hollowing out" of the US military which would have "highly corrosive and potentially long-term effects on the force". With approximately 20 of the US military's 40 or so available Brigade Combat Teams deployed to Iraq at any given time, America's volunteer army is stretched to its elastic limit.

Reporting to Congress last month, the army's vice chief of staff, Gen Richard Cody, admitted that given its ongoing overseas commitments, the US military would not be capable of responding to a major homeland security incident on US soil - particularly one with a chemical, biological or nuclear dimension. The US military authorities have also admitted that they could not respond meaningfully "on the ground" to any new escalation of conflict elsewhere in the globe - for example in Lebanon, Iran or Korea.

The US military acknowledges that since the invasion of Iraq, divorce rates among officers have trebled. Divorce rates have also doubled among enlisted troops due to the strain of repeat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated 15,000 US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to be suffering from combat stress reaction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Alarmingly, Pentagon reports indicate that up to 27 per cent of US troops currently serving in Iraq - particularly those on a second or third tour of duty - are suffering from depression and PTSD. The suicide rate within the US military has also more than doubled since President Bush's announcement of the end of military operations in Iraq just five years ago.

Despite the modest reduction in US casualties resulting from the recent "Surge" in Iraq, the future of the US military in Iraq is unsustainable as a stabilising force. On the fifth anniversary of President Bush's premature "mission accomplished" speech, reports of progress from Iraq closely resemble General William Westmoreland's breezy reports of progress from Vietnam during the closing years of that conflict.

Whoever enters the Whitehouse in January, be they Republican or Democrat, will inherit a situation in Iraq that resembles Vietnam in more ways than one. The highest echelons of the US military accept that not only is Operation Iraqi Freedom in crisis, but so also is the very fabric of the over-extended US military. As the National Security Advisory Group summarises it, "In the current debate over Iraq, there is an elephant in the room that few are willing to acknowledge" - the real risk of "breaking the force" and destroying the US military by over-exposure to sustained combat.

Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish Times Security Analyst. He lectures in the school of media, DIT.
. Indeed, as of November 2007, with the Iraq "Surge", US combat operations have increased in size and scope.
They've gone down a little since, until the recent jaunt into Sadr City. Wonder why he chose a date six months ago?

ON THIS day five years ago, US president George Bush, as commander in chief of the US armed forces, landed on board the aircraft carrier USS George Lincoln off the Californian coastline near San Diego. In a highly symbolic and stage-managed event, he - in front of a large banner declaring "mission accomplished" - declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Hello California_Tanker,

would I be right in saying there is no such ship as the USS George Lincoln?
Abraham Lincoln perhaps?

Sombre reading nonetheless.

They'll name an aircraft carrier after anyone, these days...


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