The Army is stretched so thin by the war in Iraq that it is again extending the combat tours of thousands of soldiers beyond the promised 12 months — the second such move since August.
A brigade of the 1st Armored Division – about 3,800 troops – is having its one-year tour of duty extended by 45 to 60 days, reported CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. That will allow the 3rd Infantry Division to have a full year at home before going back to Iraq.
Soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division had been expecting to return to their home base in Friedberg, Germany, in early January. Instead, they will stay in Iraq at least until late February, several officials said Monday. The soldiers are operating in western Anbar province, one of the most violent and dangerous parts of Iraq.
"The Army is coming to the end of its rope in Iraq," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a private research group. "It simply does not have enough active-duty military personnel to sustain the current level of effort."
Of the 142,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, nearly 120,000 are Army soldiers. The tour extension affects between 3,500 and 4,000 soldiers in the brigade, officials said.
The Army's original goal was to give soldiers two years at home for every year in Iraq, reports Martin. It first slipped to 18 months at home, and now it's just 14 months between tours.
Last month, the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade was ordered to extend its tour in Iraq by up to four months. Some members of that unit had already returned to the brigade's home base in Alaska when the decision was announced. About 300 soldiers had to go back to Iraq, drawing public complaints from some families.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted at other adjustments to the troop-rotation plan.
"We're also bringing some other units in earlier, which is another way of dealing with that issue" of how to keep a sufficient number of troops in Iraq with a limited number of combat brigades available, Rumsfeld said.
The extension reflects a dilemma for Army leaders: either keep one group of soldiers in Iraq longer than promised, or replace them with another group that has not yet had its minimum 12 months at home between combat tours. Either choice risks upsetting some soldiers and their families. And the fact that the choice cannot be avoided is a sign that troop rotations in Iraq are squeezing the Army from several directions.
But the Army is also running short of money, reports Martin. It will need $66 billion over the next several years just to repair or replace all the equipment torn up in Iraq.
Some members of Congress are expressing concern that the military is over-stretched by the war. On Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, said the situation in Iraq is "disintegrating" into a civil war. "My instinct is once the (November) election is over there will be a lot more hard thinking about what to do about Iraq and a lot more candid observations about it."
In more bad news for the Defense Department, a group of retired military officers on Monday bluntly accused Rumsfeld of bungling the war in Iraq, saying U.S. troops were sent to fight without the best equipment and that critical facts were hidden from the public.
"I believe that Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," retired Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in remarks prepared for a forum conducted by Senate Democrats.
A second military leader, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, assessed Rumsfeld as "incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically. ..."
"Mr. Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making," he added at the policy forum, held six weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which the war is a central issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed the Democratic-sponsored event as "an election-year smokescreen aimed at obscuring the Democrats' dismal record on national security."
"Today's stunt may rile up the liberal base, but it won't kill a single terrorist or prevent a single attack," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. He called Rumsfeld an "excellent secretary of defense."