The Pentagon has indefinitely shelved its plans to ship 2,700 ground troops and 350 Special Forces troops to the Philippines, where they were to help train and fight alongside the Philippine armed forces in their battle against the Abu Sayyaf Islamic rebel group.
But Phillip Mitchell, ground forces analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says this reversal doesn’t mean the United States will curtail its global military presence.
“I think primarily because the U.S. is the sole remaining superpower. And as a superpower, it has global interests and therefore a global reach,” he says. “It has to maintain not only the security of its own borders, but look to maintaining security on a worldwide basis. And on that fact alone we see the deployment of U.S. forces worldwide.”
Maintaining security on a worldwide basis keeps tens of thousands of American servicemen and women overseas. In recent months the Pentagon has deployed 235,000 troops in preparation for a war in Iraq. But more often than not Ivan Oelrich, senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, says U.S. troops are sent abroad in an advisory capacity.
“Some times these deployments might be literally a handful of people, just five or six people, who might even be attached to an embassy. They might be training or working on some liaison function or helping them to set up a communications system so they can communicate with U.S. forces,” he says.
“If some country has bought weapons from the U.S., U.S. military personnel might be there for some period to train the troops on how they’re used," Mr. Oelrich says. "So a deployment might be a very, very small number of people. So you have to look at not the numbers of countries but how many people are in each country. And when you do that it’s much less dramatic.”
While some troop deployments are for training rather than combat, other deployments are vitally important. Military analysts say U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia are crucial. These troops act as deterrents to possible regional aggression.
But the U.S. military’s global commitments have led some to question whether America’s armed forces aren’t being pulled in too many directions at once. Patrick Garrett, associate analyst with Globalsecurity.org, says these worries are exaggerated.
“I think that the argument or the claims that the U.S. military is overextended are really misleading. I think that to say that in general is a misleading statement,” he says. “I think that the U.S. has probably one of the best militaries in the world. It might not necessarily have the numbers of a North Korea, but it does certainly have much more in the way of capabilities.”
The United States has 1.4 million men and women in uniform. At present close to 20% of U.S. troops are deployed overseas. How does this compare to other periods in American history? At the height of the Cold War, the United States had 400,000 troops in Europe. Today there are some 40,000 to 50,000 troops there. Mr. Mitchell with the International Institute for Strategic Studies expects to see this presence scaled back even further as part of the shift from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
“At the present time there certainly has been some downsizing over the past few years. And that’s understandable given the end of the Cold War,” he says. “But equally what the U.S. is looking towards now is to changing the emphasis of its deployment. And it’s considering not so much large numbers of troops manning tanks and armored personnel carriers, but a smaller number of troops who are able to be rapidly deployed to a given situation anywhere in the world.”
U.S. troop movements into new military arenas have been accompanied by a rising tide of anti-Americanism around the world. Thirty-seven thousand U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. Visceral anti-Americanism among young South Koreans has led some Americans to question whether the United States should continue to risk American lives in places where they are not wanted.
While Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says he is willing to talk to the South Korean government about a reduction in U.S. forces, nobody thinks the Americans will pull out completely. To do so would be almost tantamount to inviting North Korea to invade the South, says Mr. Mitchell.
“I think you’ll go to any country where large numbers of foreign troops are stationed and you will always find an element, particularly among the younger set, which are opposed to those foreign troops,” Mr. Mitchell says. “I can remember in Germany, when I was there not too many years ago, that there was that both anti-U.S. and anti-U.K. feeling among the population. So it’s always been there, and I think to a certain extent it’s perhaps fostered by certain politicians.”
Americans are also wary of sending U.S. troops off to “another Vietnam.” The United States lost more than 50,000 servicemen during the bloody Southeast Asian conflict. While such fears are understandable, Mr. Garrett of Globalsecurity says the United States is unlikely to get involved in a similar situation.
“I think that fears of a U.S. quagmire, or of another quagmire similar to Vietnam, are justified and warranted,” Mr. Garrett says. “I think that the greatest risk of that could be seen quite possibly in locations such as Colombia. But in the current situation (in Colombia) there is (U.S.) legislation that prevents the United States from having an enormous buildup. And I would think that a quagmire would be much more of a low-intensive nature than what we saw in Vietnam.”
Another concern is a future in which U.S. troops would be possibly fighting multiple wars. With U.S. military planners focused on a war in Iraq and a post-war occupation, the Bush Administration is trying to avoid a simultaneous conflict with North Korea. It hopes to resolve the present standoff through some kind of diplomacy. But Patrick Garrett says the United States would not hesitate to defend South Korea if it were attacked by the North.
“I think that the United States definitely has the capability to fight two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts, similar to what Donald Rumsfeld has been talking about the last couple of months,” he says. “It’s definitely possible that they can fight a war in Iraq. It’s most certainly possible that they could fight a war on the Korean peninsula if required, while at the same time continuing their force presence in Afghanistan. Now whether or not the United States would want to begin to open up significant fronts consisting of tens of thousands of troops in other localities, I have my doubts.”
Military analysts are generous in their praise of the skills and discipline of U.S. troops. Most observers deny that American forces have become overextended. And while the majority agree with the Pentagon’s assertion that the United States can fight a two-front war and win, they hope that day does not come.