Iraq burden shifts from reserves to regular active duty troops

The Guard and Reserves may have a bigger role in Iraq in 2008, leaving this year as one to regroup.

The U.S. military is gathering its troops for a last-ditch surge to pacify Iraq.

Units from the regular force and the National Guard alike have had their tours of duty extended in Iraq to swell the force on hand. A new Pentagon policy, meanwhile, has given commanders extraordinary authority to call up Guard and Reserve troops for a second tour, or a third.

Yet at the same time, the number of Guard and Reserve troops on active duty has dropped to its lowest level since January 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. This is no momentary dip but a long-standing trend.

The number of Guard and Reserve troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere worldwide has been dropping steadily since September 2005. Yet the size of the force abroad, counting regulars and citizen-soldiers combined, has consistently remained between 250,000 and 300,000. That means the burden has shifted.

In the early years of the war in Iraq, it weighed heavily on the Guard and Reserves; in recent years, the burden has fallen more on the regular active-duty force.

Nor does this trend show any sign of stopping soon. Since January 2005, the decline in the number of Guard and Reserve troops mobilized into active duty has continued almost unbroken. Nor has it picked up again in recent weeks because of the surge -- a crucial indicator because most units mobilized must train stateside for months before they deploy abroad. The official (albeit tentative) schedules for this year call for not a single new National Guard brigade to go to Iraq.

So if the Pentagon has new powers to call up reservists at the same time it is surging in Iraq, why isn't it calling them up? The answer lies in what could happen after the surge.

Even if the extra 20,000-plus combat troops stanch the sectarian bloodletting in Baghdad, the only thing that the U.S. gets out of their success is more time. It will still need troops there, and President Bush shows no signs of pulling them out.

If the surge fails, the possibilities of anarchy, genocide, or a wider regional war require the U.S. military to have devised its own contingency plans. So, while Congress and the media may be fixated on what happens between now and August, military planners are drawing the blueprints for what comes after that.

The military claims it needs no Guard combat brigades for 2007, said John Pike, top analyst and outspoken founder of the private intelligence firm, "but I am guessing that 2008 may be a different matter."

In fact, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve have already endured a nearly two-year-long "surge" of their own, in 2004 and 2005. This prolonged increase in Reserve and Guard commitment overseas gave active-duty Army units the time they needed at home to reorganize into smaller, more self-sufficient brigades better suited to modern war.

As a result, Guard and Reserve troops made up more than 30 percent of the force deployed abroad in every month from March 2004 through October 2005, peaking at 36.7 percent in December 2004. In recent months, by contrast, their share of the deployed force has stayed below 25 percent.

This level of effort is still far greater than anything in the 1990s, when months-long peacekeeping missions in the Balkans first broke citizen-soldiers out of their traditional "weekend warrior" mode. The number of Reserve and Guard troops on active duty may have dropped dramatically since the peak of their commitment to Iraq, but it still exceeds the number mobilized after 9/11.

And in stark contrast to 2001 and 2002, when the majority of Reserve and Guard troops called to active duty remained in the United States, protecting American airports, power plants, and bridges from potential terrorist attacks that never materialized, now the majority are in Iraq or Afghanistan, fighting off real attacks day after day. And if military pundits are right that the current surge will exhaust the regular force within six months, the Reserve and Guard contribution is only going to climb again come September.

So the Pentagon's new policy on the Reserves and Guard, announced in January, is designed to make it easier for citizen-soldiers to keep running this bloody marathon, not to let them stop.

Current Army practice is to mobilize a Reserve or Guard unit to active duty, send its members to a training camp in the United States for up to six months, and only then deploy them abroad for a 12-month tour in Afghanistan or Iraq. Citizen-soldiers despise the lengthy pre-deployment stateside training, which separates them from their families but does not allow them the satisfaction of a real-world mission.

"It's ridiculous," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States. "We had units that experienced as much as six months of [pre-deployment] training in some place like Camp Shelby [Mississippi] or Fort Bliss [Texas]. It's incredibly repetitive, redoing things that the Guard did on weekend drills prior to mobilization."

The new Pentagon policy will cut in half the length of time that Guard or Reserve troops can be mobilized, from 24 consecutive months to 12. But the plan is to take out the slack of redundant pre-deployment training while making the tours in Iraq or Afghanistan as close to a full year as possible.

The Reserve and Guard units will now have to squeeze the training for short-notice response into their regular schedule of one weekend a month, two active-duty weeks per year. That is a lot of new pressure.

The policy also ends exemptions that allowed some citizen-soldiers to stay at home while the rest of their unit deployed. Many Reserve and Guard troops volunteer for active duty as individuals, detached from their parent unit for months at a time; others transfer from unit to unit as they move in civilian life. Under the old policy, an individual could run out his personal 24-month deployment clock before his unit as a whole even got the call to mobilize, which meant the unit had to find a replacement for him when it was called up -- a laborious, disruptive, bureaucratic shuffle.

Now, although the time required on active duty has been halved to just 12 months, the limit will apply only to a unit as a whole, not to individuals: No matter how many months a citizen-soldier has already served as an individual volunteer while detached from a unit, he or she will still have to deploy with it for the full unit tour.

"People who have gone before and maybe done pretty close to 24 months can [now] figure it's not a matter of 'if' they're going to be tapped to go back, but 'when,' " Goheen said. "But most people thought that was inevitable anyway." So although no full brigades of National Guard combat troops are on the deployment schedule for 2007, Goheen went on, "our units will be needed again. The hope was they wouldn't be needed until '09. Unofficially, there have been reports it could be '08."

Whether the surge succeeds or not, the Guard and Reserves are treating 2007 as their chance to regroup for the long haul, not as the last year of the war.