Commentary

More Troops Are Not the Answer

By Gordon Adams and Christopher A. Preble
This article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 20, 2007.

There is growing support in Washington for a significant and permanent increase in the size of the U.S. military. Conceding that the Army and Marines have been “stressed” by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush has directed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to make recommendations on how to beef up the ground forces. Gates calls for adding 92,000 troops to the Army and the Marine Corps.

Some Democratic leaders support the move. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois representative and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he was glad the Bush administration “has realized the need for increasing the size of the armed forces … but this is where the Democrats have been for two years.”

Expanding the size of the permanent Army is largely irrelevant to the outcome in Iraq; the new forces would be ready well after that conflict has ended. It is hard to imagine another scenario the American people would support that required a major land invasion and a long occupation. What, then, would be the mission of this larger force? To fight the war on terror? On the face of it, such a justification is unpersuasive. Of the 14 high-value al Qaeda members moved from once-secret CIA prisons to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay last September, not a single one was captured by U.S. military personnel.

The plot to destroy airliners over the Atlantic last summer was foiled by British law enforcement officers working with authorities in U.S. and Pakistan, not by the military. The al Qaeda cells in Hamburg and Madrid were disrupted in a similar fashion. Even when military assets have been used – e.g., the bombing that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq – such strikes are surgical, use small forces, and depend on timely intelligence from non-military sources.

Expanding the Army would be irrelevant to Iraq and, more seriously, enlarging the force in the absence of another, clear mission would be a dangerous mistake. If the purpose of the military is to fight and win on the battlefield, we must remember that no nation is foolish enough to fight the United States using conventional means. If it is to invade another country with a substantial force, one has to ask what country we intend to invade, and to what end. Iran? Pakistan? Indonesia? Or, as the Washington Post recently suggested, China? After Iraq, there is grave doubt that such a course would be wise or publicly supported.

Our conventional military dominance has encouraged potential adversaries to fight us unconventionally, and we must adapt accordingly. We don’t need additional forces. Indeed, a larger force could prove to be counter-productive.

If the new mission of the force is primarily counter-terrorism, no new troops are necessary, since the people combating terrorist organizations rarely wear military uniforms. As these and many other examples show, most successful counter-terrorism operations rely on intelligence, effective cooperation with foreign militaries, and the integration of law enforcement, diplomacy, foreign assistance, and financial intervention, not blunt military force.

Not only is more force not the answer to the terrorist challenge, relying on large concentrations of conventional troops to accomplish what should be surgical missions may be completely counter-productive, increasing, rather than decreasing the terrorist threat.

As University of Chicago researcher Robert Pape noted in a recent paper for the Cato Institute, “every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has been waged for defensive control of territory, to establish self-determination for a community facing the presence of foreign combat forces.”

If more Army units are stationed abroad – especially in predominantly Muslim countries – al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorist organizations will inevitably feed on the resentment generated by their presence to increase the terrorist ranks.

Even Paul Wolfowitz, one of the primary architects of the Iraq war, understood the need for swiftly removing foreign troops from Muslim lands. In congressional testimony in February 2003, Wolfowitz admitted that resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.”

Wolfowitz implied that Saddam’s removal would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

Iraq is a test case for the risks inherent in a larger force, which leaders could more readily deploy on foreign soil. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq last September noted, not surprisingly, that the U.S. military presence there had served as a rallying point for Muslim radicals. And al Qaeda, according to a letter intercepted by the U.S. military, considers the U.S. troop presence to be a boon to its cause. An expanded Army would only give us all we need to fumble our way into another strategic disaster.

For the past 15 years, we have asked much of our soldiers, and they have responded honorably. No one disputes that our military is stressed, but adding tens of thousands of troops gets it backward: we need to ask less of them, not commit them to missions requiring many more than we have.

The near-term solution to our personnel problems is to bring our troops home from Iraq. The long-term solution is a reappraisal of our strategy for fighting terrorism and a reconsideration of the balance among the tools we use to implement it.

In any case, more troops are not the answer.

Gordon Adams is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies and author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda.