Thursday, June 21, 2007

Soldiers, civil servants feel the strain in Iraq

On Tuesday, acting Army Secretary Pete Geren told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Army may have to extend the combat tours of U.S. troops in Iraq once again if President Bush insists on maintaining his surge into spring of 2008.

Geren said that the military is also considering relying more heavily on Army reservists or Navy and Air Force personnel as alternatives to extending active Army combat tours.

"It's too early to look into the next year, but for the Army we have to begin to plan," Geren told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to look into our options."

Earlier this year, combat tours were extended to 15 months from 12 months, with 12 months at home guaranteed between tours. This extension infuriated lawmakers who wanted to adhere to the previous standard of soldiers having as much time at home as at war.

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), for example, asked "Who was talking for the well being and the health of the Soldiers when this requirement was put down?" referring to the 15-month combat tours. After four years of combat, the strategy in Iraq cannot "justify doing this to the Soldiers in the Army and the families back here," Webb said.

American civil servants in Iraq are suffering too. The Washington Postreported yesterday that 40% of State Department diplomats who have served in danger zones abroad suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

State started an internal poll to try and assess the prevalence of PTSD in its ranks. "Preliminary results from the State Department survey suggest that it may affect some 40 percent or more, similar to what has been reported for the U.S. military," Steven Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Tuesday.

Kashkett also said that some 2,000 diplomats have volunteered to serve in Iraq since 2003. At least 20% of the U.S. Foreign Service has already served in Iraq according to the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler.

In a memo obtained by the AP, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid out a new policy for assigning diplomats to Iraq that could essentially block appointments to other posts and force, or "direct," some diplomats to accept positions in Iraq:
"We must ensure that these top priority requirements are met before any other staffing decisions are made," Rice said in the cable. "To that end, we have decided to take the unprecedented step of creating a special country-specific assignment cycle for Iraq, commencing with the release of this message."

Rice's dynamic action comes in response to a plea from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who two weeks ago complained that "Simply put, we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the Department's best people." Crocker has achieved some success in increasing his staff in Baghdad, including adding 11 additional political officers and 12 economic officers.

Iraqi civilians continue to suffer - and so do we.

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