When two major studies recently released questioned whether the US Army is being stretched too thin, they raised a much-repeated concern: that America does not have enough troops to win the war in Iraq. At a deeper level, though, they raise the question of whether today’s military is prepared for the threats that could lie ahead in the war on terror.

The Pentagon’s answer is a categorical “yes,” insisting that the military is well suited for whatever the future holds. But with the department’s four-year plan for spending and strategy to be presented to Congress next month, critics say that America’s experience in Iraq suggests that the US may not be ready for another long, slow Iraq-style war.

The question is purely one of structure, not skill. Reports such as those released last week — one by Andrew Krepinevich, author of one of the studies and an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments based in Washington; the other by former Defence Secretary William Perry — have suggested that the force is simply not large enough to do what the Defence Department has asked of it. The debate has played out at times publicly and at times privately, as when former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer requested more troops in 2003 and was ignored.

But only rarely has attention left Iraq and focused on what that conflict says about future threats. Now is one of those times. The Pentagon is scheduled to submit the Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) to Congress on February 6. The QDR will set the Pentagon’s priorities for the next four years by laying out a vision of what military leaders expect future threats to be, and then aligning the department’s budgets and doctrine. The Army of today is in many ways a reflection of the 2001 QDR. To react to flashpoints around the globe in a post-cold-war world, it suggested, the Army needed to be smaller but quicker. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a “transforming” Army was deployed to devastating effect. But now, an Army designed for lightning strikes is being asked to keep the lid on a country where many neighbourhoods are seething with anti-American sentiment.

To Krepinevich, that difficult task serves as a warning about the types of challenges US forces could face in future conflicts. In countries prone to Islamic radicalism — such as Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia — any military venture would probably involve a lengthy peacekeeping after the war is won. Moreover, since these countries are far larger than Iraq in both size and population, it would take a far larger force to control them. But the Pentagon disagrees. Defence officials insist that the size of the force in Iraq is what the generals want, and as the Army transforms, the process will free more soldiers to fight.

Not surprisingly, critics are sceptical. Some who are familiar with drafts of the coming QDR

suggest that the lessons learned from the Iraq war have simply heaped more duties on a force already struggling to meet the ones it has. — The Christian Science Monitor