When U.S. and British forces got bogged down last March in their run to Baghdad, legislators, media pundits, and armchair strategists claimed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had skimped on troops. The decisive victory that followed silenced them.
But now that our reconstruction efforts are encountering resistance by die-hard Baathists, foreign fundamentalists, and other assorted ne'er-do-wells, those same critics are now claiming that things would be a lot quieter in Iraq if we had listened to their advice and sent a bigger army to do the job.
Not so. The critics are compounding their earlier error with new ones. In the process, they are also overlooking an important new development—the role of reserves, a critical element in planning the future of the U.S. military.
The critics wanted more combat forces. The current situation, however, calls for peacekeeping and nation-building forces, which means military police who can establish order, public affairs specialists who can disseminate the message of the U.S. government, and civil affairs units who can deliver emergency aid to refugees. It also means intelligence units who can mix in with the local population and track down Saddam Hussein's remaining thugs.
The additional combat forces that the critics wanted back in March would have done little to help us in the current situation. Combat and peacekeeping require completely different capabilities.
Which brings us to the real problem today. The military has trained people in peacekeeping and nation building. But most of them are reservists, and those are the ones the Defense Department will need to rely more heavily on in the next few months.
The Pentagon claims that by 2004, 105,000 troops will be in Iraq, down from the current 130,000. Just over a third of those will be reservists—nearly three times as many as now.
Reservists disproportionately make up the forces used in peacekeeping and nation building. Ninety-seven percent of the army's civil affairs specialists are reservists; 82 percent of public affairs specialists are reservists. The figures are only slightly higher for military police, intelligence, and special forces.
Because it will be difficult to keep these people away from their civilian jobs, U.S. officials may come under pressure to cut the reconstruction process short, which could be disastrous.
Our current predicament is a legacy of the cold war, when it was assumed that reservists would be needed only for a short period and most likely in friendly locales, such as mopping-up operations in West Germany after a hypothetical Soviet invasion.
The situation has flip-flopped. The part of the war that combat forces perform is brief. But the operations in which reservists specialize—the war after the war—can take ten times as long.
Because we are likely to see this pattern repeated, we need to rethink our force structure. We may need to add more active-duty forces in noncombatant specialties or use more reservists in combat. Or we may need to spend more on defense.
Those are the costs of leading a war on terrorists and rogue states. The alternative is to rely on other countries or the UN—both of which have been unwilling to act decisively. Or we could hunker down and risk another attack like September 11. Today's debates over military reserve policy are really debates over America's role in the world.