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US Forces Feeling Stress of Overseas Deployments - 2002-01-23

U.S. forces are under increasing stress because of their deployment in Afghanistan in addition to other overseas military commitments. Senior defense officials say they have no choice in the matter, even though the Bush administration wants to cut back on its foreign military missions.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concedes America's armed forces are suffering stresses and strains that are "not trivial" because of their commitments overseas. But he also says the military has to do what it has to do, especially when it comes to fighting terrorism in the wake of the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld said that in addition to Afghanistan and the Philippines, that could mean even more troop deployments abroad. "If we have to go into 15 more countries, we ought to do it," he said, "to deal with the problem of terrorism, so we don't allow this problem to damage and kill tens of thousands more people."

On the surface, this statement of Bush administration policy appears to be a major shift from the time when candidate George Bush was running for President.

Back then, his campaign hammered away at the Clinton administration for allegedly running down the military by increasing its use. Bush campaign literature said that under President Clinton, U.S. forces averaged one new deployment every nine weeks while defense spending declined. The Bush campaign quoted a former U.S. commander during the Gulf war as saying the military would find it difficult to conduct another major operation on the scale of the 1991 conflict against Iraq.

But a decade later, now President Bush has mounted a major operation, this time, in and around Afghanistan. More U.S. troops are moving into the Philippines. And many analysts suspect there will be even more deployments, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

To be sure, more money is being earmarked for defense. But at the same time, there has been little change in other U.S. deployments overseas dating back to the Clinton administration and even earlier.

American soldiers remain in Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea and the Middle East.

Mr. Rumsfeld does not see it as ironic. But he says U.S. troop reductions are still called for in some places. "I think what we ought to be doing is the things we need to be doing," he said, "and we ought not to be doing the things that others can do better or that we should have been doing in the first instance but no longer need to be doing."

He said, for example, that he does not think the United States needs to keep its observer force in the Sinai. He also believes American troops in Bosnia should be removed. Mr. Rumsfeld said, "They were put in there [Bosnia]. The United States government announced they'd be out by Christmas. It's now five years later. Several Christmases have passed - five, to be precise."

Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States has an important role to play internationally. But any further U.S. military involvement overseas should be measured and limited in duration. He continued, "I think that the [Bush] administration has a very healthy, proper attitude about it, that when we get into something, by golly, we want to know what it is we're doing and what's going to take our place when we come out, because we don't plan to go in and spend a career or a lifetime or two generations in these places."

Still, ask any senior Pentagon official when U.S. troops might come home from Afghanistan and the answer is anything but clear-cut. "As long as it takes," says one. Another says "until the mission is accomplished." They maintain there is still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to wiping out the last suspected al-Qaida terrorist cells.