National Guard and Reserve troops filled the gap in Iraq while the regular Army underwent a radical overhaul.
For the past 14 weeks, quietly and with little public notice, the Pentagon has been steadily reducing the number of Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops in Iraq.
Last year, at the peak of deployments of reservists -- when citizen-soldiers were carrying perhaps 50 percent of the combat load -- the Army Guard alone had about 40,000 soldiers in Iraq. Today, its presence is down to roughly 20,000, said Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard, and in 2006, "we're going to level out somewhere slightly less than that."
Army Guard and Reserve troops have made up about 80 percent of all reservists mobilized worldwide, but the overall number of reservists serving on active duty -- including Air Force, Navy, and Marine fighters -- has also dropped for 12 of the past 13 weeks, according to the Pentagon's weekly tallies. In fact, a look at the ups and downs of the past three years finds that the last time so few reservists were on active duty was in February 2003, during the buildup for the invasion of Iraq.
Meanwhile, despite much talk of drawdowns, the total force in Iraq, regulars and reservists combined, is still about the same as it was a year ago: 138,000. It surged to 160,000 for the October elections there and has only just come back down. So the citizen-soldiers of the Reserves and Guard are not coming home as part of some general withdrawal. The Pentagon is shifting the burden back onto the regular, active-duty force.
What is driving this? Is the war going that much better? Or is the administration trying to reduce the impact on U.S. families and communities of an unpopular war? Neither, insist both top generals and outside observers.
"The plan all along was to burn through the Guard and Reserve as a stopgap measure, [since] the fall of 2003, when it finally started to sink in that [Army leaders] had a long war on their hands," said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, which keeps extensive public databases on the state of the U.S. military.
"They gave us plenty of warning," echoed Vaughn. "And we knew we were going to come back down." But for nearly two years, from the time the military reversed its initial, overly optimistic drawdown of forces in Iraq in November 2003 to the end of the Iraqi national elections in October 2005, the reservists had to hold the line -- while the regular Army underwent the most radical wartime overhaul since Valley Forge.
The unit that stormed Baghdad in spring 2003, for example, was the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, first bloodied in France in 1917 and, on paper, still organized much the same way nine decades later, as a single, solid sledgehammer nearly 20,000 strong. But on the ground, in the rapid-fire reality of modern warfare, the division had to break into smaller, nimbler brigades, much like the units sent to Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. And carving self-sufficient subunits out of a division designed to operate en masse is laborious, inefficient, and disruptive.
When, as then-presidential-candidate George W. Bush noted, two of the Army's 10 divisions were "not ready for duty" in 2000, it was because of the effort required to maintain just two brigades in the Balkans. The number of brigades in Iraq since 2003 has hovered around a dozen.
The old Army could not sustain such an effort. So in fall 2003, the newly appointed chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, decided to dissolve the divisions for good and create more self-contained, and more numerous, "modular" brigades -- reforming the entire active Army in just two years.
Army leaders "moved it out faster than we've been able to keep track," said the hard-to-impress Pike. "But in the interim, they threw the Guard and Reserve in -- and the Guard and Reserve got clobbered."
Clobbered? National Guard leaders wouldn't go that far.
"I don't think you can characterize it as damaging to the organization," said Maj. Gen. Francis Vavala, the adjutant-general in charge of the Delaware National Guard and vice president of the Adjutants-General Association of the United States. "It was good strategy for us to go into the breach to allow [the regular Army] time to reset. [But now] most of our big combat units have been exhausted."
"We're not broken," agreed Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, Nebraska's adjutant-general and president of the Adjutants-General Association. "But we were definitely being stretched; and if we'd had to sustain [such] high levels for another year or so, we'd have reached a broken state."
Now, however, the strain is easing. And the reserve component's capacity to adapt may have finally caught up with the post-9/11 world.
"The people in charge have learned from their mistakes," said Kathy Moakler, deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association, a support and advocacy group.
Calls to the association from confused and worried families have dropped dramatically since the invasion of Afghanistan, Moakler said, because Guard and Reserve family-support programs, from counseling to financial aid to child care, have ramped up.
"Access to programs was sketchy at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom," she said. "It has become much more robust because the Guard and Reserve realized they needed more programs and rallied more resources."
While new family-support programs cover the home front, the new "modular" Army brigades should be less burdensome to deploy abroad, in theory. And, in theory, now that the regular Army has stepped back up, and the Guard and Reserve contribution has dropped back down -- albeit to a level still far above that required for the invasion of Afghanistan, let alone anything during the 1990s -- America's citizen-soldiers should be able to keep going at this pace indefinitely.
"We can sustain that number for a long time," said Vaughn. "We'll do whatever we're called to duty for," and ups and downs are inevitable. But another surge to 2005's peak levels looks unlikely, Vaughn said -- adding, "at this time."
That assumes, of course, that events cooperate in Iraq, and Iran, and Korea, and the Balkans, and around the world. "We're telling our soldiers and families that they can probably expect some sort of deployment every five or six years," said Maj. Gen. Lempke. "But nobody can really know for sure."