From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Five more American soldiers have died in Iraq, making October the deadliest month for U.S. forces in a year. With criticism of his foreign policy growing by the day, President Bush went on the offensive yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our mission is to help the elected government in Iraq defeat common enemies, to bring peace and stability to Iraq and make our nation more secure. Our goals are unchanging. We are flexible in our methods to achieving those goals.

CHIDEYA: The president and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have said they'll need to send more troops if their commanders say they'll need them. But we spoke with former secretary of the Army, Togo D. West, Jr., and he says most commanders are reluctant to admit that they're stretched too thin. That's for two very good reasons.

Secretary TOGO D. WEST, JR. (Former Secretary, U.S. Army; Former Secretary, Veterans Affairs): It's because they don't want, one, to give aid and comfort to the enemy - and two, they don't want to dishearten the very soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel - and Coast Guard personnel as well -that they're supposed to lead, that they are leading.

But the fact is Iraq - coming hard on the heels of an incomplete mission in Afghanistan, that is to say it was done, it was done successfully, but it still lingers - and with all the other responsibilities we assigned to our military, is taxing our forces - especially our Army, and to a lesser extent our Marine Corps - in ways that are, on the long run, unhealthy, unwholesome, and not good for our national security.

CHIDEYA: So where are U.S. troops these days? And what I mean by that is that you have some troops that are home in the United States. You have some troops that are in non-combat areas, say in stations in Germany and Japan. And then you have some who are in combat zones. Do you have any idea, roughly, how that breaks down?

Sec. WEST: Well, let's think about it. Let's take the Army first - it's the largest of our forces and the one most committed there in the Middle East, and the one that has the ground responsibility along with the Marine Corps - and look at it in two ways. We have - over the past several years, several administrations - considered ourselves roughly a million person army. And that roughly has broken down to half in the active duty Army, the other half in the reserves, that is the Guard and reserves.

Now, those aren't precisely the numbers. It's roughly 500,000 or thereabouts for the active Army, and then the - maybe 340,000 or so in the guard, and another 190,000 or so in the reserves, something like that. Of those, 140,000 of the active forces are in Iraq. Let's look at it for a minute just in terms of combat ability. Say 39 brigade combat teams in the army, building towards 42. Sixteen of them are in Iraq.

CHIDEYA: How many people are in a brigade?

Sec. WEST: Well, somewhere between 5 and 6,000 is in a brigade combat team, something like that. So, and then maybe another two and half in Afghanistan, 16 brigades roughly in the United States being reset, retrained. Some taking leave - there's not much leave in the armed services these days, however. And then, of course, we've got some scattered around.

We've got that force there at the DMZ in North Korea, in what we've always considered the most sensitive border in the world. So, roughly, half of our combat force is committed to Iraq right now, and you've - you know, we recently heard from General Casey that he may need more.

CHIDEYA: Unpack that situation a little bit for us. General Casey said that he might consider increasing troop strength in Iraq, but then we're also hearing that in 12 to 18 months, we may try to turn Iraq over to Iraqi forces. Is this a short-term increase and then followed by decrease? Or how do you parse out what that actually means?

Sec. WEST: Well, let's try to look at it in the fairest for our commanders, but also in the clearest way for us sitting here in the United States to analyze it. If I were an unfriendly critic of our Armed Forces and of our general officers, I'd say that's an estimate born of desperation. But I'm not, and I think what I will say it's an estimate born of reality, and that reality is this: the present force simply is not proving to be able, using lots of different tactics to stem the continued increase of violence - specifically in Baghdad, and at large in Iraq.

And so he's likely to need forces just to hold on. As a long term solution, I think just about everybody now has come around to the conclusion that we need to be looking for an endgame and an endgame that is not far away. And if you wanted to know in my view the best indicator of what are our active military generals are thinking, keep an eye on what Representative John Murtha says. Of the members of Congress, he is the one most in constant touch with them and most attuned to their thinking.

CHIDEYA: Well, Murtha has also been a controversial figure in some ways, really going against what the administration said its capabilities were. But you're saying that he's the most - he's the most knowledgeable.

Sec. WEST: Well, he is the most knowledgeable. And remember, John Murtha - and bless his soul - he confesses that every time he stands up was one of the staunch voices and votes in favor of the administration's course in going into Iraq. But he has also said, and I think we all remember that he came out and said it's not working and we need to plan on bringing ourselves out of there in an orderly fashion.

Over the years of his career - he is now the ranking member of appropriations, but for a long time he's a ranking member of the Defense Subcommittee of House Appropriations. And he has always supported our Army, our Marines, whenever they needed a voice to say this is what they need to train. This is what they need to get the equipment they need. This is what their size needs to be. And for that reason, he often talks with senior officers and often hears from them.

CHIDEYA: Now, you have people like Senator John Warner saying this isn't working. But at this point, being a secretary of the Army in the past and having served, you know, both in the Army and in Veterans Affairs, what would you do at this point?

Sec. WEST: Let me say something from my experience, such as it is as a civilian who has been part of and watched, and as a citizen. Our involvement over time in a number of the theaters - say from my time as a captain during our time in Vietnam, I was assigned to the Pentagon during that period. We're very good at planning - for the most part - how we will go in, how we will advance, how we will consolidate. But I don't think there is any society on earth or any military force that's really all that good at planning how to withdraw under advanced circumstances.

And exit plan is always easier to talk about than execute. Let me give you an example. We couldn't just up and announce one day that we're leaving, and everybody is out the next day. That's physically impossible, humanly impossible, and also very unwise - one day there, and the next day the floodgates open. By the same token, phased withdrawals - which is what military leaders and planners favor, they're about the only ones we can execute - are very difficult. Because as you draw down your force, the force that remains is even more and more vulnerable to attacks from the enemy if the enemy hasn't agreed to stand back.

And so pretty soon you're left with a scene not unlike that scene that many people remember as we pulled out of Vietnam with the helicopters taking off from Saigon, people rushing to cling - and the North Vietnamese overrunning the streets and at the gates.

It's a difficult scenario, the one - and everyone's talking about a variation on the same one. A phased one in which we turn over increasingly more responsibility to Iraqi security forces is the best way, but it is also the hardest to figure out how we are going to precisely do it.

CHIDEYA: So what's the best case scenario for the United States' military at this point?

Sec. WEST: Best case scenario is, frankly, not far from where we are in terms of getting to a resolution. There is increasing public awareness of how difficult the situation is, and increasing public support for a solution short of our remaining there for the foreseeable future - that is a solution that envisions a handing over responsibility and an eventual return of our troops home.

Secondly, that combines then to encourage the current elected leadership -without regard to what the rhetoric is as we go into the elections - to think long and hard and to even began to send signals that they know that the U.S. cannot remain there for a significantly longer period. You cannot remain in a country in which a majority of the people are now saying and expressing their belief that you are part of the problem.

And then thirdly, that we begin to make plans for the - as orderly a handover as is possible. And here is where that really sticky point comes. We have to communicate to the Iraqi government a timetable - some days, some dates, a point by which - several points by which - and, of course, the answer, the other side of that is once you do and the dissident elements learn of it, they either ratchet up their activity so that they can begin to position themselves to really attack whatever is left behind as a government once we go on the date certain. Or they lay low until that date certain and then erupt again.

And so there are arguments that say never set a date certain. We have no choice. We will eventually have to say on these days, we will take these steps. And by these point in time we will have withdrawn to - take your pick: back to the United States to some over-the-horizon presence to nearby Kuwait, what have you.

CHIDEYA: Secretary West, thank you so much for your generous allotment of time to us, and we look forward to speaking with you in the future.

Sec. WEST: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Togo D. West, Jr. is former secretary of the Army and of Veterans Affairs.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, Rush Limbaugh backs off after saying Michael J. Fox faked his shakes. And blacks are filing fewer insurance claims than whites over Katrina damage. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable - next.

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