Gates Prolongs Army Tours by Three Months

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that, beginning immediately, all active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will serve 15-month tours — three months longer than the usual standard.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that active duty Army soldiers will now spend 15 months in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increase from the current 12 months.

The defense secretary said this change will take place immediately, and will affect some troops already in those countries. Gates also said that the Army will make sure that the soldiers ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan would be assured of one year at home before they're sent back overseas.

Joining us to talk about these latest developments is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, deployments going from 12 months to 15 months? Why?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Secretary Gates says he wants predictability for the soldiers and their families. He says it can be assured now of one year at home between deployments, and then their deployment would be 15 months. Up until now, the Pentagon has been forced to extend some troops, sometimes at the last minute, depending on the security situation.

So they could be extended three or for months. And that can really have a devastating effect on families and soldiers. Some feel betrayed. I've been in Iraq when they've extended deployments, and some soldiers are quite bitter. Morale takes a real hit. The other thing is the Pentagon has to maintain this so-called surge, or high levels of U.S. forces in Iraq.

We're looking at an increase of 29,000 troops, mostly to secure Baghdad. And overall, that would raise American troop levels to about 160,000 in Iraq. Now, to do that, the only way you can do that is extending U.S. forces. The Army isn't big enough to do it, really, any other way.

BLOCK: How long is this increase in U.S. troops to Iraq supposed to last?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a good question. We don't know, and Secretary Gates really wouldn't say. American commanders in Iraq have said they expect to know maybe by the end of this summer whether this increase in troops is having the desired effect of reducing violence in Baghdad. Privately, some senior Pentagon officials I talk with say they expect this surge to last at least until the end of the year.

And Secretary Gates said today that those extensions in this surge could last even until the spring of next year - that's if necessary. Now, commanders say - in Iraq say that there are early indications that the increased levels of U.S. troops is reducing violence in the Iraqi capital. But then again, we just had a huge gun battle in Baghdad yesterday between the U.S.-Iraqi forces and also insurgents. So it's really too early to say.

BLOCK: Tom, there's been concern that the Army is overstretched in these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some say near the breaking point. Did Secretary Gates respond to that today?

BOWMAN: Yes, he did. He said, you know, this is tough on the Army. It is stretched. It's hardened the families as well. But he did note that recruiting and retention figures for the Army and the other services looked pretty good. But then again, there's real worry among many retired generals I talk with that something like this - these troop extensions - may cause soldiers to think twice about re-enlisting.

And there's a real concern you may lose your best people. I was in Iraq in February. I talked with soldiers from privates up to colonels. Many of them told me they were thinking of getting out when they got home.

BLOCK: Tom, briefly, at the Pentagon news conference today, you asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, a question about why - with 329,000 Iraqi soldiers and police trained - they can't take control of the security situation. What did he have to say about that?

BOWMAN: Well, he acknowledged that that's right, there are 329,000 trained and equipped Iraqi forces. He says 85 to 90 of their battalions are in the lead or working side by side with the American forces. He says they're getting better. But we've heard for well over a year now that the Iraqis are in the lead, taking over more territory and so forth.

But when you're on the ground in Iraq, what you hear from American soldiers is that the Iraq security forces are really a mixed bag, that they need a lot more work.

BLOCK: NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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