Iraq bigger challenge than expected

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

WASHINGTON Wear and tear on tanks in Iraq is outpacing the Army's efforts to repair and resupply. The administration is scrambling to find thousands more troops by early next year. Stressed American soldiers are suddenly being given two-week vacations.

Five months into the American occupation of Iraq, there are growing signs that the Bush administration vastly underestimated what it would take to stabilize the country after Baghdad fell in early April.

Pentagon planners had not expected that such a large U.S. force, now totaling 130,000 troops, would be required for such a long period more than a year it now appears, rather than weeks.

They won't acknowledge the miscalculation publicly, but recent developments make them obvious:

Wear on tank treads and vehicle tires that has far outpaced the Army's ability to resupply them. Treads that normally are replaced once a year are wearing out in two months. Asked whether war planners had anticipated such heavy work for U.S. ground troops this long after the war, Gen. Paul Kern, the Army's materiel chief, said, ''Some did, some didn't.''

The decision to require 12-month tours for all troops in Iraq, including reservists. When the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force conquered Baghdad in early April, those troops thought the war was over and they would be headed home in a matter of weeks. Instead they stayed for months, and their replacements will serve even longer.

The recent disclosure by senior military commanders that they may have to take the politically sensitive step of calling up thousands more reservists for Iraq duty than was planned just weeks ago. A troop rotation plan announced in July included mobilization of two National Guard brigades. But that plan is being re-evaluated in light of continuing attacks on American forces and slow progress in getting other countries to contribute troops.

The Pentagon's decision to begin granting troops a vacation break, leaves that began last week and are expected to increase in number.

''They planned to pull the troops out quickly,'' said Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. That plan was based on what Cordesman called an illogical assumption that U.S. forces would be greeted almost universally as liberators, that political control could be handed over to Iraqis quickly and that there would be no insurgency.

''We never really had a nation-building plan,'' Cordesman said.

Pentagon planners did foresee some postwar difficulties. They were prepared, for example, to deal with a refugee problem, with acute hunger, with a torching of oil fields or with an explosion of ethnic violence none of which happened.

What they did not fully foresee was the violence aimed at U.S. occupation troops and the other security problems that have hampered the reconstruction efforts and angered many Iraqis.

An early indication that the administration did not foresee a long and violent postwar period was a statement made by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Feb. 27, shortly before the war began.

''It's not logical to me,'' he told reporters, to think it would take as many troops to keep the peace as it would to win the war. The implication was that once Baghdad fell, U.S. forces could begin to draw down as Iraqis took over more of the security duties around the country.

It remains the plan to transfer security and other responsibilities to the Iraqis. But the looting and lawlessness that descended upon parts of Iraq immediately after Saddam Hussein fell followed by increasingly sophisticated and deadly ambushes of U.S. troops have prevented any substantial decrease in the number of American troops on the ground.

Some say it may have been beyond the Pentagon's capacity to anticipate these problems.

''Military operations, in my experience, rarely turn out exactly as you envisioned them, without having to make adjustments,'' said Steve Abbot, a retired four-star Navy admiral who was deputy commander of U.S. European Command when it ran the air war over Kosovo in 1999. ''Clearly there have been major adjustments.''

Robert Burns has covered military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

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