Julian Borger / The Guardian – 2006-08-26 00:45:58
Washington (August 24, 2006) — The US marine corps has been forced to call up its reserves for compulsory service in Iraq and Afghanistan because it has not been able to find enough volunteers – a reflection of the strain the two wars are putting on America’s armed forces.
The marines’ involuntary call-up, seen as a “back-door draft” by Pentagon critics, is the first since the start of the Iraq war, and will begin in a few months when a first batch of up to 2,500 reservists will be summoned back to active service for a year or more. The army has already sent 2,200 reservists back to the front, of which only about 350 went voluntarily.
The marine corps announcement is in contrast to predictions by US commanders a few months ago that American force levels in Iraq could be reduced from about 130,000 to 100,000 by the end of the year. Those plans were shelved as sectarian violence worsened.
A mobile brigade due to return to base in Alaska last month after a year in Iraq had its tour extended by four months and was sent to Baghdad, to help Iraqi government forces slow the slide towards civil war. There are now 138,000 American troops in Iraq, of which 22,000 are marines – mostly in Anbar province.
“All that happy talk about getting down to 100,000 by the end of this year, that’s not on the cards for this year,” said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military thinktank in Washington.
“Instead, they might bump up the numbers even further … They are going to do whatever it takes to keep a lid on this damn thing in Baghdad, because if there’s anywhere it’s going to fly off the handle it’s in Baghdad. And if ethnic cleansing takes on a life of its own, people in this town are going to say it’s time to leave.”
The marine corps will be drawing on its 59,000-strong “individual ready reserve” – recent veterans who have returned to civilian life but who still have up to four years remaining of the military obligation they signed up to when they enlisted. The compulsory mobilisation of the reserve is normally ordered only in case of national emergency, but this year there were not enough reservist volunteers to fill the gaps in marine ranks.
Guy Stratton, who is in charge of the marine’s mobilisation programme, said that the most urgent need was for engineers, intelligence officers, military police and communication specialists.
“Since this is going to be a long war, we thought it was judicious and prudent at this time to be able to use a relatively small portion of those marines to help us augment our units,” Colonel Stratton said.
Typically marines sign up for eight years, spending four in active service. If they then return to civilian life in the individual ready reserve, the marine corps has the right to call them back to active duty for the remaining four years.
Gary Anderson, a retired marine colonel and now a Pentagon adviser on Iraq, said the call-up reflected the strain the Iraq war was putting on the force. “We’re in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and we still have commitments in the Far East. I think if Iraq was the only game in town, it would be different,” he said.
“Quite frankly some of these guys have gone to Iraq two or three times, and they feel they’ve done their bit … It’s going to put a strain on them. Both people and equipment are getting worn out. There’s an old saying – long wars ruin armies, and I think that’s an accurate statement.”
Jack Reed, a Democratic senator on the armed services committee, said the marines and army were “stretched perilously thin and the equipment is seriously degraded”.
But Mr Pike dismissed claims that the armed services were not ready as exaggerations based on peace-time standards. Instead, he said, resources were being focused on immediate combat needs.
“In wartime, if a wheel’s not squeaking, it’s not going to get greased,” he said, adding: “The current troop level in Iraq can be sustained indefinitely … If the army asked for bigger numbers, Congress would approve it, and the president would sign off on it, as long as the war seems to be winnable.”
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