More Troops for What?

Hoping to sound tough on terror, U.S politicians and pundits of all political stripes are calling for a massive expansion of the U.S. military. But adding more troops has nothing to do with fighting terrorism, and would merely serve the same failed strategy that gave us Iraq.

JEFFREY PHELPS/Getty Images NewsSupport the troops: The best way to support U.S. soldiers and marines is by giving them missions they can reasonably accomplish.

Washington is in the grips of a new arms race. But this time, the United States and the Soviet Union arent vying to overwhelm one another in the military arena. Its Washington politicians and pundits who are competing to see who can add the most ground troops to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Last January, U.S. President George W. Bush proposed adding 27,000 marines and 65,000 Army soldiers to the ranks over five years. The draft defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2008 contains initial funding for the expansion, and it will likely be part of the final bill that Bush signs into law later this year. The editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post back Bushs plan. So do John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani support an even bigger increase.

Everyone who matters, it seems, favors more troops. Yet nobody has stopped to ask an obvious question: more troops for what? Expansion of the U.S. armed services feeds the misplaced hope that military occupations and state-building can defeat terrorism and strengthen the national security of the United States. Wiser leaders would avoid these doomed missions and the troop expansion altogether and focus on what works.

Although it may make for good rhetoric on the campaign trail, expanding the ground forces is foolish. First, it is wildly expensive$108 billion from 2007 to 2013 and $15 billion a year thereafter, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. Second, it would degrade force quality. Because the Army is already having trouble recruiting, expansion requires lowering induction standards. Third, the expansion comes too late for Iraq. Recruiting and training the new troops would not be finished until 2012. None would even be available before 2009. By then the United States will likely have left Iraq or at least have drastically reduced force levels there.

Without Iraq, the United States will have enough ground forces to fight the war in Afghanistan and defend its allies. Together, the active-duty Army, reserves, National Guard, and Marines make up about 1.2 million troops, about 500,000 of them combat troops. Even if the U.S. military still has 25,000 troops in Afghanistan in five years and a similar amount preparing to rotate there, plus 75,000 troops in Europe and Asia, ample forces would be available to defend against the unlikely prospect of Iranian or North Korean aggression. Russias recent behavior is troubling, but the days of worrying about Red Army tanks streaming through the Fulda Gap are gone. And whatever ones fears about China and Taiwan, a battle for the Taiwan Strait would be won by air and sea power, not ground forces.

So what are the new troops for? The usual answer is to fix failed states. The basic logic is as follows: Terrorists organize in countries that lack functioning governments. These failed states also lead to civil wars and humanitarian disasters that offend our consciences and threaten regional stability. To prevent these outcomes, the United States must prop up authority abroad or create order from chaos. That requires boots on the ground. Defense analysts at think tanks like the Rand Corporation even use past occupations to tell us how many troops are needed to keep order: at least one for every 50 people in the occupied area. Apply this formula to Pakistan, a country of 169 million people (which came in at number 12 in this magazines Failed States Index), and youll quickly see that the United States and its Western allies lack the forces to pacify the worlds potential failed states. Occupying Pakistan alone would take 3.4 million troops, according to this formula, an amount greater than all the troops in NATO.

The conventional wisdom about failed states conflates counterterrorism with state-building, an error that relies on two myths. The first is that the United States can become proficient at quelling civil wars and rebuilding failed states. The second is that U.S. national security demands that it should.

Failed states are political problems at bottom. They are solved by adroit use of power, not force ratios. Occupiers far from home, unfamiliar with local customs, language, and political structures, are unlikely to govern skillfullyno matter how many cups of tea they drink with tribal sheikhs. That is why the track record of foreign powers pacifying insurgencies is abysmal. Just look at Iraq.

Afghanistan shows that less can be more. Rhetoric notwithstanding, U.S. policy there has been to avoid a large state-building mission. The military presence is minuscule compared with Iraq, but more successful, despite the lack of governance from the capital.

The goods news is that counterterrorism does not demand that Americans master the art of running foreign countries. Modern Sunni terrorism stems principally from an ideology, jihadism, not a political condition. History is rife with ungoverned states. Only one, Afghanistan, created serious danger for Americans. Even there, the problem was more that the government allied with al Qaeda than that there was no government.

True, certain civil wars have attracted terrorists, but it hardly follows that the United States should participate in these conflicts. Doing so costs blood and treasure and merely serves the narrative of jihadism, slowing its defeat by more moderate ideologies. The notion that fighting terrorism requires that we fix foreign disorder leads to an empire far more costly than the problem it is meant to solve. What the United States needs is not more troops, but more restraint in using the ones it already has.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that John Edwards endorsed the troop increase. He does not. FP regrets the error.