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An Army Stretched Thin

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The limits of America's volunteer army are showing, revealing a need to rethink this country's troop levels.

To keep enough forces in the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army this month blocked the pending reassignment or retirement of 7,000 soldiers from the region. It also offered bonuses of up to $10,000 (tax free) to encourage active-duty personnel deployed in the area or headed to it to re-enlist. This on top of the largest deployment of Reserve and National Guard units since World War II.

At the same time, precisely because the forces in Iraq are volunteers whom the Pentagon wants to return to their families by the end of May, a massive troop rotation is under way that could increase the danger for those on the ground. Normally, a significant number of units would be left behind for continuity's sake, but almost the entire battle force in Iraq is being replaced. Troops and equipment clogging the highways and airways make ripe targets for enemy attack.

It's hard to know exactly how far to go in beefing up on the nation's slimmed down forces, because it's not clear whether this is a short-term problem to be toughed out, or a long-term issue that requires strategic change. Will a significant number of forces be in Iraq a year from now? Will some other conflict, in Syria or even North Korea, come next?

At the very least, the Army's heavy reliance on Reserve and Guard supplements - normally weekend-duty folks who never expected to leave their day jobs for a year - should compel serious rethinking about troop levels.

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