U.S. Is Extending Tours of Army
WASHINGTON, April 11 — The military announced Wednesday that most active duty Army units now in Iraq and Afghanistan and those sent in the future would serve 15-month tours, three months longer than the standard one-year tour.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who announced the change at a news conference at the Pentagon, said that the only other way to maintain force levels would have been to allow many soldiers less than a year at home between combat tours.
Mr. Gates said the problem was evident even before President Bush ordered an increase in troops for Iraq this year. Officials said the change became inevitable as the numbers of extra troops that were needed — and, most likely, the time the extra forces would have to stay — increased.
“This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step,” he said. “Our forces are stretched, there’s no question about that.”
Democrats in Congress and outside military experts said the prolonged combat assignments risked damage to morale, possibly undermining recruiting and retention efforts. Tens of thousands of soldiers are facing their third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and casualties have continued to mount inexorably.
“This new policy will be an additional burden to an already overstretched Army,” said Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think this will have a chilling effect on recruiting, retention, and readiness.”
Among soldiers in the field and their families, speaking in interviews and in postings on the Internet, reactions to the announcement varied — some of them stoical, some distraught, some grim and some sardonic. Mr. Gates said no decision had been made about how long beyond August to extend reinforcements in Iraq. The total force is around 145,000 and is building toward around 160,000 by early summer. Active-duty Army troops currently total around 79,000 in Iraq and around 18,000 in Afghanistan, along with an additional 7,000 soldiers in Kuwait, who would also be covered by the new policy. The tours of Marine units, which typically are shorter and more frequent, are not being extended; nor are the tours of brigades whose time has already been extended under previous changes to their orders.
Army National Guard or Army Reserves are supposed to be mobilized for no more than a year at a time, including nine months in Iraq or Afghanistan, under a policy announced by Mr. Gates in January.
By ordering longer tours for all other Army units, the Pentagon will be able to maintain the current force levels for another year and still give soldiers a full year to rest, retrain and re-equip before having to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan, Mr. Gates said.
The new policy calls for soldiers to receive a minimum of one year at home between tours, he said.
Word of the extensions reached the American military command post in Juwayba, Iraq, in a rural area east of Ramadi, overnight when a sergeant spotted it while surfing the Internet. It was greeted with a mixture of anger and resignation among the few soldiers who were still awake. “We’re just laughing,” said Capt. Brice Cooper, 26, the executive officer of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry Division. He was chuckling nervously, his frustration palpable. “It’s so unbelievable, it’s humorous.”
The soldiers crowded around the outpost’s few computers, sending e-mail messages to their families and parsing Mr. Gates’s words in the hope of finding possible loopholes that would exclude them from the extension. The unit was scheduled to return to its base in Germany in June. The extension meant it would probably have to stay here until September.
“I’m fixing to lose my girlfriend,” one soldier grumbled.
Though the tours of some Army units have been extended beyond 12 months in recent years as troop levels have fluctuated, those extensions were always done on an ad-hoc basis. Mr. Gates said the 15-month tours for all active-duty units would be a more equitable and predictable approach.
Early in the war in Iraq, the Pentagon’s goal was for active-duty troops to spend two years at home for every year deployed. Eventually, Mr. Gates said, the Army would like to return to that pattern. That will have to await either a reduction in overall force levels or an increase in the size of the military, which has been set in motion but will take years to accomplish.
William L. Nash, a retired Army major general now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that keeping units in Iraq longer might help counterinsurgency operations, by allowing troops more time to become familiar with areas where they were operating.
But he said that a soldier on his third tour who spent 18 months in Iraq would have spent more time in a combat zone than many did during World War II. Though recruiting and retention numbers generally have been strong, he predicted that many soldiers would decide to end their military careers, either before or after their next tours in Iraq.
“It has to have an impact on retention,” General Nash said. “I don’t know how much, whether it’s 2 percent or 20 percent, but it will have an impact.”
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the Army was facing problems keeping junior and midcareer officers.
In a statement, he said: “Recent graduates of West Point are choosing to leave active-duty service at the highest rate in more than three decades. This administration’s policies are literally driving out some of our best young officers. Instead of escalating the war with no end in sight, we have to start bringing it to a responsible conclusion.”
The decision to prolong rotations comes at the same time as Congress and the White House are in a sustained fight over Democrats’ efforts to set a deadline for beginning troop withdrawals from Iraq, a confrontation that showed no signs of easing on Wednesday. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Democrats would not back away from their insistence that a withdrawal date be included in the Iraq spending bill being sorted out between the House and the Senate.
Mr. Reid and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, invited the president to the Capitol on Friday to meet with Democrats and Republicans on the Iraq spending bill. Their invitation came a day after the president asked Congressional leaders to come to the White House next week, which was greeted with a cool response by Democrats.
Mr. Reid said the president was detached from the realities on the ground in Iraq.
“The president is as isolated, I believe, on the Iraq issue as Richard Nixon was when he was hunkered down in the White House,” Mr. Reid said Wednesday.
Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Juwayba, Iraq, and Jeff Zeleny from Washington.