Pentagon Extends Tours of Duty in Iraq, Afghanistan

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The Defense Department is planning to extend the tour of duty for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Wednesday that soldiers will have to serve three more months than scheduled.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And even as we're following that news, American troops are absorbing this announcement from the Pentagon.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): Effective immediately, active Army units now in the Central Command area of responsibility and those headed there will deploy for not more than 15 months.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The key part there is not more than 15 months. Up to now, most deployments in Iraq had been closer to a year. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was the one who made the announcement. In effect, every soldier who's currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan has just had their tour of duty expended.

NPR's Tom Bowman was at yesterday's briefing and has details. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why do this now?

BOWMAN: Well, a couple of reasons. Secretary Gates wants to give predictability to the soldiers and their families. There have been times over the past several years where these soldiers have been extended sometimes at the last minute. It could be devastating, obviously, for families and soldiers. Morale takes a real hit when something like this happens. The other thing is to maintain the so-called surge of troops in Iraq. The Army is too small to keep up this overall level of 160,000 troops in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Well, what does this say about the stress that's on the Army right now?

BOWMAN: People are really worried about it. Now, Gates points out that the recruiting or retention figures for the Army look pretty good, but some generals I talk with really question that. They say that there are some indications that National Guard soldiers, sergeants with more than 10 years are leaving at a higher rate. Also in the active force, some officers and senior non-commissioned officers are leaving much more than they would have in the past at higher rates.

INSKEEP: Now I suppose if you're institutionalizing these longer terms, in effect, you're acknowledging that the demand for troops in Iraq is going to go on and on for quite some time. What ever happened to Iraqi forces taking over at some point?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a good point. The Iraqi security forces have several hundred thousand police and soldiers. And at the press briefing yesterday, I asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, that very point.

General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I think you say the truth, which is that there are 329,000 trained. Of the 120 battalions of about 500 Iraqis apiece, about 85 to 90 of those are in the lead or are working side-by-side. That they are getting better.

BOWMAN: We've heard that for well over a year now, that the Iraqis are in the lead, taking over more territory, increasing their numbers. But when you're on the ground in Iraq, you're more likely to hear from American soldiers that the Iraqi security forces are a mixed bag. They take one week off each month. Their units are sometimes less than half strength. Leadership is spotty. And aside from the Iraqi soldiers, you have the Iraqi national police, which has been infiltrated by sectarian militias. So there's a lot more work to do. And the sense I get is that Pentagon is painting too rosy a picture sometimes about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon.

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