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National Guard Troops Face Early Redeployment to Iraq

February 22, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The Pentagon has alerted National Guard units in several states their soldiers may be returning to Iraq sooner than expected. The New York Times reported today that as many as 14,000 Guard troops could be involved.

For more, I’m joined by David Cloud of the New York Times, who broke the story today. And, David, who’s being told to be ready to go back to Iraq?

DAVID CLOUD, New York Times: Well, there are units in four states — Arkansas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana — combat brigades in all four of the states, which are being told they may have to go back to Iraq early next year. Many of them have already been to Iraq one or Afghanistan one or even two times.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when would they have expected to go back? When, under the normal rotation, would they have gone back otherwise?

DAVID CLOUD: One of the units wasn’t scheduled to go back until 2010. The other three were supposed to go back in 2009. So this is a significant shortening of the time that they’re going to have at home between deployments.

Timetables for deployments

RAY SUAREZ: Now, what was the most recent policy of the Bush administration regarding how long it would be between overseas deployments for units like the ones that are being told to be ready to go back?

DAVID CLOUD: The policy for several years, since the Iraq invasion, has been that, for Guard and Reserve units, they were supposed to be deployed for 24 months every five years, no more than 24 months every five years. That was scraped in January when the president announced his surge plan, his plan to send more reinforcements to Iraq.

They acknowledged at the time that essentially the deployments had gone on so long in Iraq and Afghanistan that there was no way they could live up to those promises anymore. And they've come up with a new set of rules, which essentially say, "We will send you for one year, a maximum of one year, every five years." But in doing so, they've wiped away the previous service so that any unit is now eligible to go back for another year to Iraq or Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: So for these time totals, we're starting from scratch, we're starting from square one?

DAVID CLOUD: That's correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Are Guard units already in Iraq also being extended, in addition to ones back home being sent back sooner?

DAVID CLOUD: As part of the increase in troops in Iraq, the 21,500 that the White House announced in January, they did extend one unit, a Minnesota National Guard brigade, for 90 days.

There are not a lot of combat units, Guard combat units in Iraq right now. They essentially, in 2004, had much of the combat mission, but it's gone down since then. If this plan, which we were discussing here, goes through, it will go back up next year.

Shortage of personnel, equipment

RAY SUAREZ: Do the commanding officers -- and these are state functions -- do the commanding officers in these various states say that they have the personnel they need, the equipment they need to redeploy as quickly as they're being asked to?

DAVID CLOUD: Well, I've talked to a number of them in the past few days, and a number of these units that could go next year, and many of them say they do not, at the moment, have the equipment and even the training to carry out the mission.

They're in discussions with the Army about getting the equipment. Many of them say they're short of rifles, they're short of mortars, they're short of a lot of things, equipment, up-armored Humvees, which are vital in Iraq, because of the IED threat. And the Army has committed to getting them the equipment they need.

But under the quick timetable that they're looking at, it's going to be a difficult job to get them all the equipment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, help me understand the relationship between these units being asked to go back next year and the year after with the president's intention to increase the number of troops deployed in Iraq. We were told that it would peak by the end of this year and that it would be temporary. Does this mean that that surge could go on a lot longer?

DAVID CLOUD: There's no definitive answer to that yet. Commanders have said the surge will go on, and they'll look at conditions at the end of the summer and decide whether the 21,500 troop increase could come down at that time.

So, in effect, what the Pentagon is doing is preparing for the possibility that they will need this elevated number of troops next year by alerting these Guard units now that they might have to go.

RAY SUAREZ: So there is a possibility that they may not have to go, if a drawdown begins?

DAVID CLOUD: There's a possibility. There's also a strong possibility, you know, according to some of the commanders I've talked to, that Gen. Petraeus, the new top American commander there, will want these additional troops for a longer period than just the summer. And so there's a good possibility they may have to go, as well.

A 'Swiss cheese' unit

RAY SUAREZ: One term that keeps popping up in these discussions of unit strength and Guard deployments is Swiss cheese units. What are Swiss cheese units?

DAVID CLOUD: This is a term that's kind of come into vogue in the last year or so. Swiss cheese units are Guard units that have had individual members sent over to Iraq, and therefore been left at under-strength because individuals, and sometimes in large numbers, have gone over, but the whole unit hasn't.

And that's left units with some people who are eligible to go, others who aren't eligible to go, some with -- it also applies to equipment. Some equipment has gone; some has stayed. So you have -- essentially, it's a term that refers to the under-strength Guard units, many of which are prevalent around the country in many states now.

RAY SUAREZ: Why are individuals being sent over when normally people are deployed in units with the people they train with and work with?

DAVID CLOUD: It's a complicated question. Part of it is that, for years, well before 2003, when we invaded Iraq, Guard units were never at their authorized strength, and therefore, when it became necessary to mobilize some of them, you couldn't -- it didn't make sense to send units that were neither fully equipped nor fully manned, because they needed to be fully manned and fully equipped to go to Iraq.

So they would take individuals, called individual augmentees, put them into another unit, bring that unit up to full strength and send it. But that created a cascading problem, as the years went on, which is it would leave other units that the people have been taken from like Swiss cheese.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what's the real consequence at the end of that cascade? Are there units that simply can't go overseas because they don't have enough people and they don't have enough equipment?

DAVID CLOUD: I mean, the way the Army answers that question is to say, "We don't send units overseas that aren't fully equipped and fully manned." And so what they do -- and part of the idea of identifying units now that could go next year is to give them time to get equipped and manned so that they will be at full strength when they go.

Recruiting members for Guard

RAY SUAREZ: Now, what has been the situation with attracting, recruiting, and training new members of the Guards and Reserves? People close to the situation have been saying the Iraq and Afghan wars have been very rough on those institutions. Are people still signing up in their hometowns?

DAVID CLOUD: They are signing up. The numbers aren't as good as for the active forces. The active forces are exceeding their goals in virtually every category. The reserve forces aren't, but the shortfalls aren't dramatic.

I mean, the concern in some ways is the concern of commanders that I talked to, particularly of units that are in this category of potentially going next year, is that, between now and then, Guard members who are eligible to retire, whose enlistments are up, may not re-enlist, and that they will then be forced to find replacements for them, you know, before they go.

RAY SUAREZ: Can they be compelled to stay in service like regular forces can?

DAVID CLOUD: They can. This concept of stop-loss, which the Pentagon can impose on Guard members to stop them from getting out, if they are scheduled to -- if they are mobilized. Again, it's a technical thing, but there are ways that the Pentagon can prevent members from getting out.

RAY SUAREZ: David Cloud of the New York Times, thanks a lot.

DAVID CLOUD: My pleasure.