Pentagon Says Iraq Effort Limits Ability to Fight Other Conflicts

By THOM SHANKER

New York Times

May 3, 3005

WASHINGTON, May 2 - The concentration of American troops and weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan limits the Pentagon's ability to deal with other potential armed conflicts, the military's highest ranking officer reported to Congress on Monday.

The officer, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed Congress in a classified report that major combat operations elsewhere in the world, should they be necessary, would probably be more protracted and produce higher American and foreign civilian casualties because of the commitment of Pentagon resources in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A half dozen Pentagon civilian and military officials were discussing the outlines of the report on Monday as it was being officially delivered to Congress; one government official provided a copy to The New York Times. The officials who discussed the assessment demanded anonymity because it is a classified document.

General Myers cited reduced stockpiles of precision weapons, which were depleted during the invasion of Iraq, and the stress on reserve units, which fulfill the bulk of combat support duties in Iraq, as among the factors that would limit the Pentagon's ability to prevail as quickly as war planners once predicted in other potential conflicts.

The report this year acknowledges that the nation's armed forces are operating under a higher level of risk than cited in the report last year, said Pentagon and military officials who have read both documents.

Despite the limitations, General Myers was unwavering in his assessment that American forces would win any major combat operation. The armed forces, he concluded, are "fully capable" of meeting all Washington's military objectives.

The general's report appears to provide a slightly different assessment than President Bush offered at a news conference last week when he said the number of American troops in Iraq would not limit Washington military options elsewhere.

Mr. Bush said he had asked General Myers, "Do you feel that we've limited our capacity to deal with other problems because of our troop levels in Iraq?"

"And the answer is no, he didn't feel a bit limited," Mr. Bush said. "It feels like we got plenty of capacity."

Late Monday, a Pentagon official dismissed any serious contradiction between the president and the general. "The two comments are consistent in that no one in the military feels at all limited in the ability to respond to any contingency," the official said. "What the risk assessment discusses is the nature of the response."

Another Pentagon official emphasized that the risk assessment should be understood as a rating of the military's ability to successfully perform its mission based on a set of standards set by the Joint Staff, which is different from the broad statement of military capability given by the president at his news conference.

In the report, General Myers wrote, the military faces "moderate" risk in its mission to protect the United States, and he assessed the risk for preventing conflict - including surprise attack - as "moderate, but trending toward significant."

Though the general wrote that the military forces "will succeed in any" major combat operation, he added that "they may be unable to meet expectations for speed or precision as detailed in our current plans."

The annual "Chairman's Risk Assessment," which is required by Congress, warned that additional major combat operations "may result in significantly extended campaign timelines, and achieving campaign objectives may result in higher casualties and collateral damage."

The classified assessment is a formal acknowledgment by General Myers, who serves as the senior military adviser to both President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, of a series of strains: those placed on military personnel by large and lengthy overseas deployments; those placed on weapons and vehicles by wear and tear; and those placed on war planners trying to counter potential adversaries even though forces previously committed to such places as South Korea are now engaged elsewhere.

Even so, the assessment notes steps already under way to mitigate this risk, and concludes that at the broadest global and strategic levels, the risk "is significant, but trending lower."

The half-dozen senior officials who discussed the chairman's assessment seemed motivated at least in part by concerns that its findings might be misinterpreted by adversaries as an admission of vulnerability, and be seen as an invitation to adventurism that could lead to war.

In case of armed conflict, "There is no doubt what the outcome would be," said one senior official. "But it may not be as pretty," said another.

The assessment acknowledges the important role played by the demonstration of American military resolve in deterring adversaries.

"Our ability to manage the perceptions of our adversaries is critical," General Myers wrote. "Our nation's steadfast resolve has been demonstrated by our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and selected operations" in the campaign against terrorism. "This in itself is a strong deterrent and should serve to restrain" the actions of adversaries, he wrote.

General Myers noted that the American military does not face "extreme risk," the highest level, in any of the categories analyzed in the report. Among the steps he listed as being in progress were substantial improvements in coordinating military efforts with civil authorities, who are "playing a critical role in disrupting potential terrorist attacks against the United States," he wrote.

Overseas, terrorist sanctuaries have been reduced and the Navy and Air Force have shown they can quickly deploy weapons and personnel to deter adversaries. One example cited by General Myers was the decision to move heavy bombers from bases in the United States to airfields in the Pacific to deter potential hostile action by North Korea when ground forces in the region - those usually assigned to a contingency on the Korean peninsula - began moving toward Iraq in advance of the war there.

At the same time, the military has learned how to better "maintain and sustain a campaign level of effort" through the mission in Iraq, and the Army in particular is reorganizing its forces to create more units that can be deployed. But even though adjustments to the organization of the active and reserve components, and the Army's overall restructuring, will eventually correct shortfalls in deployable troop strength, "this will take several more years to complete," the assessment states. At present, there are about 138,000 American troops in Iraq, and about 17,000 in Afghanistan.

In an upbeat final paragraph, General Myers told Congress that the armed forces "remain the most professional, best trained, and best equipped military in the world.

"Our ability to project power, anywhere in the world, remains second to none," he added. "The dedication, commitment, and sacrifice of the men and women of our Armed Forces ensure success in every challenge."