WASHINGTON As security improves in Iraq, pressure is building to reverse one of the most onerous decisions Defense Secretary Robert Gates made to enable President Bush's troop buildup to go forward this year: extending the tours of active-duty soldiers from 12 months to 15 months.
The extra three months is a weighty burden, both physically and psychologically, for soldiers already stressed by multiple tours and on families coping with strains that have mounted since the war began in 2003.
"We can't sustain that," Gen. George Casey, who was the top U.S. commander in Iraq before becoming the Army chief of staff at the Pentagon in April, said recently. "We have to come off that." He said a decision on cutting tour lengths could be announced in three months or four months.
Army leaders are pushing to shorten tour lengths back to 12 months by summer, when Bush's troop buildup is scheduled to end. But senior commanders in Baghdad appear reluctant to commit to a change until perhaps late next year, fearing that Iraqi stability still will be in doubt until that point.
The outcome depends in large part on what Bush decides to do next spring after hearing an updated assessment of Iraq from his top commander in the country, Gen. David Petraeus. At hand then will be a decision on whether to continue cutting U.S. troops levels beyond July. If no further cuts are made, it will be much harder for the Army to back away from the 15-month tours.
There are now 166,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, about 30,000 more than when Bush announced his buildup last January. By July that is supposed to have fallen back to about 135,000. Although Bush has not committed yet to going lower, Gates has expressed hope it could drop to 100,000 by next December.
At least 3,886 members of the U.S. military have died in the war since it started, although casualties have slowed.
On a visit to Iraq this past week, Gates said he was encouraged by security gains but cautious about future progress.
As a measure of Army leaders' concern about excessively long tours, the vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, told soldiers in February two months before the decision on 15-month tours was made that the prevailing standard of 12 months was too long. Cody said the goal was to cut it to nine months.
Among the soldiers hit hardest by the extended tours are those in certain units of the 1st Cavalry Division. They deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood, Texas, last fall with orders to return within 12 months. Then came the word in April that everyone would stay for 15 months.
The 15-month standard does not apply to Army National Guard or Army Reserve soldiers. Marines generally serve seven-month tours, although they get less time between tours than do soldiers.
Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, the operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander in Iraq, said Friday that figuring out the right time to reduce tour lengths is as much an art as a science. The math part is fairly straightforward and points to reductions by late summer, he said.
"The art that's being applied by the commanders on the ground might yield a different result," he said. "And that's what the commanders on the ground are assessing because they have to accomplish the mission."
The commanders might see a need to deviate from a straight-line approach possibly deciding, for example, not to rigidly follow a "first in, first out" policy for rotating units home. Inevitably, commanders seek to retain as much flexibility as possible to achieve their combat goals.
Ham said the subject of 15-month tours was discussed with Bush when he visited the Pentagon Nov. 29.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an Associated Press interview Dec. 4 that he thinks 15-month tours are too long, although he said soldiers are bearing up well. His own headquarters, from III Corps based at Fort Hood, is scheduled to stay for 15 months.
Odierno said a reduction to 12 months was based on continued improvements in Iraq and might not happen until next December.
Odierno said that as a commander in the field, his calculation about how many Army brigades are needed and for what periods are not based on the policy goal of getting back to 12-month tours, even though it is a goal he supports. Instead he takes into consideration such things as the trends in security gains, the fighting capacity of the Iraqi army and the progress in Iraqi governance.
George Joulwan, a retired Army general who was the top NATO commander in Europe from 1993-97, said in an interview Friday that expecting soldiers to spend 15 months in Iraq is a major burden.
"It is tough," he said. "This is not a good position for the Army every commander and every leader will tell you that." On the other hand, he added, it is unrealistic to expect a commander in Iraq to predict now that conditions next summer will permit a shortening of tours.
Casey, as the Army chief of staff, is responsible for maintaining the overall health and vitality of the entire Army. So he has a perspective that puts the tour length issue in a different light.
He mentioned that he has thought about the danger of allowing wartime strains to "break" the Army. That has not happened, he stressed, but he remains wary of the possibility of missing important warning signs.
"There's a thin red line out there that you don't know when you cross it until after you've crossed it," Casey said. "We are now in a position of having to sustain an all-volunteer force in a protracted confrontation for the first time since the Revolutionary War, and so we are in uncharted territory. We're measuring all of these things very carefully, but I've got to tell you, it's a dicey game."