Project on Defense Alternatives

The New Occupation:

How Preventive War is Wrecking the Military

by Charles Knight and Marcus Corbin
04 January 2004
a Security Policy Working Group Commentary

This commentary was distributed by the Global Beat Syndicate through Knight Ridder syndication. It appeared in the Albany (NY) Times Union, the Tallahassee (FL) Democrat, the Watertown (NY) Daily Times, the Ft. Worth (TX) Star Telegram, and the Common Dreams Website at

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Just over a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration published its new National Security Strategy (NSS), giving prominent place to unilateral, preventive wars -- followed by the dismantling of the leadership and governing structures in targeted countries.

What this radical new doctrine failed to acknowledge, describe or discuss was our preparation for the consequences. Left unsaid is that we would bear the heavy new burdens of protracted occupation and state building on a massive scale after these preventive wars.

Instead of a strategic plan, the new doctrine reads more like a vision statement. It fails to address how to achieve the administration's stated objectives in light of the real-world constraints of acceptable costs and consequences.

Euphoria over the capture of Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, a year after the publishing of the NSS, our military faces long-term occupation duty in not one country, but two.

In Afghanistan, about 9,000 U.S. troops are attempting to guarantee the survival of a new government, train the new Afghan army, and fight resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda units.

More than 150,000 coalition soldiers (87 percent American) now occupy Iraq -- about six soldiers for every 1,000 Iraqis. That is a very low ratio by historic standards. Occupation forces facing concerted resistance often require about 20 troops per thousand, so if insurgency in Iraq continues to intensify, suppressing it eventually may require 300,000 troops or more.

Yet the Bush administration did not plan for such a large-scale, long-serving occupation force, nor did it instruct our military to train the troops for occupation duty -- a task very different from battlefield combat.

Maintaining public order, guarding civilian reconstruction activities and rooting out insurgents -- all while respecting the rights of civilians -- require specific training that has been given to only a small portion of our troops in Iraq.

To this administration, such training is uncomfortably close to that needed for peacekeeping operations -- a role that Bush officials disdain.

The consequences of the Bush NSS become more stark when we "do the numbers."

Our total deployable ground forces (Army and Marines) number about 400,000 active-duty men and women and another 500,000 reservists. Together, these numbers are more than enough to fight America's wars of short duration, such as the 1991 war with Iraq. But when policy choices result in long occupations, such totals quickly become insufficient -- a result of the dismal math of force rotations.

It takes four troop units on active duty to sustain deployment of one active unit in the field for multiple years, and it takes nine reserve units to sustain deployment of one reserve unit.

A four- or five-year occupation of Iraq by 65,000 regular and 35,000 reserve troops -- a realistic possibility -- will require a rotation base of 260,000 active troops (65 percent of our deployable active ground forces) and 315,000 reserve troops (63 percent of our deployable reserve ground forces.)

This illustration does not properly capture the full effect of the broader "war on terror" on our reservists.

Currently, more than 130,000 Reserve ground troops are serving in homeland security roles, "backfilling" for active-duty soldiers elsewhere abroad, and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. For the reservists, this level of mobilization is already more than twice the long-term sustainable rate.

If another war begins, the President will still be able to mobilize plenty of military power. It is occupations that are the problem.

If occupation of Iraq stretches into years and the "war on terrorism" widens even further, Army Reserve and National Guard units will be called to active service again and again -- an activation rate far higher than the norm expected by our citizen soldiers, their families and their communities.

Soon there will be significant problems with recruitment, morale and retention. One possible indicator of things to come: The Army Reserve missed this fiscal year's overall retention rate goal by 6.7 percent -- and by 9.3 percent among career soldiers.

The Bush administration plans to start drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq next spring, but history suggests that a different course is as likely. After World War II, U.S. forces occupied Germany for 10 years and Japan for seven.

So far, Congress and the American people are only dimly aware of a crucial decision just ahead due to the new Iraq war: Either we invest in larger armies trained and ready for long occupation duty, or we jettison the Bush administration's radical doctrine of preventive wars and regime change.

Charles Knight is co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives in Cambridge, Mass. Marcus Corbin is director of the Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC.

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