United States encounters limits to military power
By Jim Mannion
WASHINGTON: The United States has turned to the United Nations for help in Iraq, embraced diplomacy with North Korea and only reluctantly sent small numbers of US troops to help a West African peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
For an administration known for a go-it-alone, heavy-handed approach to world affairs, those developments reflect something new, analysts here say: The United States is bumping up against the limits of its military power.
After back-to-back wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and entangling, open-ended occupations in both countries, the United States no longer has the luxury of readily available military options.
“We cannot be everywhere at all times in the world,” US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told US troops this week at the Soto Cano air base in Honduras when asked whether current US forces were numerous enough to meet commitments overseas.
Rumfeld complained that his cables traffic is filled with requests for US military assistance, most recently from the Nigerian commander of a peacekeeping force in Liberia “asking us to do more, and constantly do more.” “That’s understandable. There is great need in Liberia and in other countries in the world, and our folks do a great job,” he said. “But there are limits.”
Those limits came into view again this week after Baghdad was rocked by a truck bombing at UN headquarters that killed the chief UN envoy and many others.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly noted that the United States as the occupying power was responsible for security in the capital, reviving a running debate over whether the United States has enough troops on the ground to stabilize the country.
“The number of troops — boots per square inch — is not the issue,” said General John Abizaid, the American commander in Iraq, telling reporters the solution was fielding more Iraqis in security roles.s.
The general said he did not need more than the 147,000 US troops now in the country. But even if he wanted more, military analysts say few US troops are available.
“Our army is tapped out,” said Kenneth Pollack, an expert at the Brookings Institution, who believes stabilizing Iraq will require double the US troops now in Iraq.
Nearly half the army’s 33 combat brigades are already in Iraq, said military analyst Michael O’Hanlon. With other commitments in Korea, Afghanistan and the Balkans, only a dozen combat brigades are available for deployment, and most of those are preparing for duty in Iraq, he says.
Top army generals also have warned that their forces are stretched thin, short on infantry and military police — precisely the kinds of troops that are most needed in places like Iraq..
“I am increasingly concerned we don’t have enough soldiers and Marines to do all the jobs that must be done,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, wrote this week in a column for the Washington Times entitled, “Stretched Too Thin.”
Rumsfeld, however, has resisted growing political pressure for an increase in the size of the 1.4 million-strong US force.
Instead, he hopes to free up troops by cutting commitments overseas in places like the Balkans, the Sinai, Iceland, and also through a broader realignment of the US military posture in Europe and Asia that is expected to be unveiled by the end of this year.
The Pentagon already has announced plans to pull back its 37,000 ground troops from the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea in the coming years. Analysts say the Pentagon plans to offset them with air power.
“We are looking at our footprint worldwide,” Rumsfeld said this week. “To the extent we can pull down some of these forces that are in Asia and Europe — and I believe we can — it does relieve stress on the force.”.”
Analysts also see a greater US reliance on diplomacy as a result.
Secretary of State Colin Powell went back this week to the United Nations — the scene of bitter clashes last winter over US plans to invade Iraq — to look for more international troops to fill out two additional multinational divisions.s.
Though unwilling to share authority with the United Nations in Iraq, Washington may have to cede power to get a new UN Security Council resolution that would encourage countries to contribute troops to a US-led force.
It also appears to be taking a somewhat more conciliatory tact toward North Korea ahead of six-way talks in Beijing at the end of the month amid reports it may offer Pyongyang incentives to eliminate its nuclear program.
The catastrophic consequences of war on the Korean Peninsula makes military options unattractive in any event, said O’Hanlon. —AFP