U.S. military officials have been trying to reassure skeptical members of Congress about the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers continue to question whether there are sufficient numbers of troops in Iraq, and what commanders are doing to develop Iraqi forces to take over some of the load now shouldered by American troops.
Democrats and Republicans may still be arguing over why the United States went to war in Iraq, but they all ask similar questions about U.S. forces.
They are concerned about the strain on U.S. troops, particularly military reserve and National Guard units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several months ago, the Pentagon increased to one year the length of deployments for reserve units. That produced a flood of complaints from troops, many sent directly to lawmaker's offices.
General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to that in testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. "We have not done a good enough job in the past of informing especially our reserves and guard when they were going to be called, giving them enough time to get their family's lives in order, then telling them how long they're going to be on and not changing in the middle of their tour how much longer they're going to be on, those things impact a family's decision later on whether or not to stay in (remain in the military)." Some lawmakers doubt assurances that good progress is being made in training Iraqis to assume more of the security burden in Iraq.
General Pace, and another official, undersecretary of defense for personnel, David Chu, said it is hoped U.S. troops strength could be reduced to about 100,000 by next May.
That produced this exchange between Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, and General Pace.
Wilson: I don't see the security situation in Iraq changing fast enough, or the Iraqis being trained fast enough, or the likelihood of a multinational division being available, in March of 2004 to replace the 101st [Airborne], what is your backup plan?
Pace: The expectation is that there are two coalition divisions there now, and those two coalition divisions will be replaced. That is the expectation and we believe we have through our State Department commitments from the countries that that will, in fact, happen.
General Pace says "forward" U.S. divisions in Iraq will be replaced by three divisions, at which time new Iraqi forces will be available to make up the difference.
But some key Republicans as well as some conservative pro-military Democrats believe steps need to be taken now to build what is called "military end-strength" to respond to future challenges in the war on terrorism.
General Pace was asked about suggestions heard recently that Iraq is becoming another "Vietnam" for U.S. troops. "This is not a Vietnam, sir," he answered. "I served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and I fought against Viet Cong and I fought against North Vietnamese regular army. There is no regular army in Iraq that we're fighting against, there is no Viet Cong in Iraq that we're fighting against. We do have some former regime loyalists, we do have some terrorists, home grown and imported that we're fighting against, and we will handle that militarily. And there will be days when we do real well, and there will be days when we are not happy about the result. But we will press this fight militarily."
Many members of Congress also continue to be skeptical about prospects for help from allies other than the ones already on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.