WASHINGTON - "Are we stretched too thin?" Time magazine thunderously asked on a recent front cover. "U.S. forces are straining to meet missions in Iraq, Pentagon officials tell Congress," according to a headline a few days later in The New York Times. Imperial overstretch is here.
It did not take long.
Only two years after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of Sept., 11, 2001, and less than half a year after the U.S. Army and Marines carried off a lightning three-week conquest of Iraq with virtually zero casualties, the U.S. global military deployment is stretched dangerously thin, with dire potential consequences if a second full-scale conflict with a rogue nation such as North Korea should erupt.
Senior military officials and political figures openly admit that the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard are seriously overworked. Senior Army officers are reported in the media as expressing concern that the massive strain of "overstretch" and rapid rotation into low-morale combat zones with escalating casualties might rapidly lead to a massive exodus of experienced veterans especially non-commissioned officers, the backbone of the superb, all-professional force.
A glance at U.S. global deployments makes clear where the "big, black hole" in U.S. global military over-stretch is: It is in Iraq.
Currently the conflict sucks up 161,500 U.S. troops, including 8,000 National Guardsmen -- and women -- and 12,000 Army Reservists. Excluding the Reservists and National Guard volunteers, that means 140,000 regular Army troops are still bogged down in Iraq, a nation of 25 million people, and Kuwait. That is a full 20 percent of the entire manpower of the U.S. Army.
Yet even with that relatively massive force there, the Army is critically undermanned for the job of maintaining security and rebuilding civic society in Iraq, as virtually all experts who are not government spokesmen agree.
Senior U.S. serving and recently retired officers speaking to United Press International on condition of anonymity have said at least twice as many, and perhaps more than three times as many troops -- 300,000 or 400,000 in all -- might be needed to do the job.
This is in large part, they say, because Iraq's long land desert borders are wide open to infiltration from neighboring Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iran, and Islamist jihad guerrillas and their supporters have been taking full advantage of the fact.
Meanwhile, the global picture of U.S. troop deployments shows other striking anomalies.
Two-and-three-quarter years after President George W. Bush took office vowing to end his predecessor Bill Clinton's commitment to bogging down U.S. troops in futile "nation-building" adventures in Africa and the Balkans, Bush has committed more than 30 times as many U.S. troops as Clinton ever did to Bosnia and Kosovo for the most ambitious "nation-building" operation of all in Iraq.
There are also still 9,600 U.S. troops bogged down in Afghanistan, where the administration's "nation-building" strategy to replace the Islamist Taliban, former hosts of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group, is now widely acknowledged to have collapsed in a chaotic and increasingly bloody shambles.
Meanwhile, 5,100 U.S. peacekeeping troops remain where Clinton committed them: in the Balkans. After nearly three years in office and with a global imperative of hunting down bin Laden and destroying al-Qaida farther away from victory than ever, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his team have not gotten around to extricating themselves yet.
Other force deployment conundrums abound in Northeast Asia. Some 31,500 U.S. troops remain deployed at the moment in South Korea. That is a larger number than are deployed across the entire United States for domestic security at a time when concerns about possible future mega-terrorist attacks, including with weapons of mass destruction, are greater than ever. The total number of regular Army troops deployed at home for domestic security is 28,600, almost 3,000 less than those still tied up in South Korea.
In fact, Rumsfeld and his civilian strategists want to draw down the South Korea force and use it more agile, aggressive ways -- their favorite adjectives -- to hunt down al-Qaida across the length and breadth of Asia. But a new problem has emerged to throw doubts on that strategy, too.
Pulling out those troops could dangerously escalate tensions with North Korea as Pyongyang might very well interpret the move as removing the "safety tripwire" of U.S. troops that guarantees America will not attack the North. For if it did, those forces would be "hostage" to the overwhelming firepower of as many as 13,000 North Korean artillery tubes north of the demilitarized zone.