20,000 Additional Troops — Give or Take 15,000

For all the column inches expended on the Bush administration's plan to send more troops to Iraq, one significant aspect of the proposal has yet to be sorted out.

There has been a lot of back and forth in the press about the Bush administration’s plan to send more troops to Iraq, but for all the column inches expended on the topic this past weekend, one significant aspect of the proposal has yet to be sorted out: just how many troops are — or aren’t — being sent?

The administration’s plan, as it’s been reported, calls for about 21,500 more troops to be sent primarily to Baghdad to try and tramp down the Hobbesian bloodletting (to put it charitably) that now grips the capital. It’s important to note that those troops are all combat troops, however, and that according to some analysts, additional support troops will need to be sent to back up their mission — more than doubling the 21,500 figure that has lodged in the minds of reporters.

Granted, the question of total troop numbers is still very much under debate, but it would behoove our major dailies to pass some of the details of that debate on to its reading public. Readers of this weekend’s coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post, however, would have little inkling that anything is going on.

A report released last week from the Congressional Budget Office said that the Defense Department is only counting combat troops in its deployment numbers, adding that, “U.S. military operations also require substantial support forces, including personnel to staff headquarters, serve as military police and provide communications, contracting, engineering, intelligence, medical and other services.” Under other deployments, that would amount to about 28,000 support troops, in addition to the 21,500 that is being reported. But since the U.S. already has a large contingent of support troops deployed in and around Iraq, the CBO revised its numbers down to 15,000 support troops for the new deployment. If that is the case, that would still bring the new deployment up to between 35,000 and 48,000 troops.

As always, there’s more. White House counselor Dan Bartlett wrote Newsweek’s Howard Fineman an e-mail last week saying that, according to Fineman, “we don’t agree with the CBO estimate and analysis. We think that there are already enough support troops on the ground there that very few will be required.”

A good rundown of the back and forth was found in a piece in Friday’s Army Times, which shows just how little lawmakers — and even Army brass — understand of the logistics of the plan.

Despite this evidence of confusion, the weekend editions of our two major dailies, the Times and the Post, remained mum on the story. On Saturday, for example, the Times reported that Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said that the bleak, recently released National Intelligence Estimate “bolstered the White House strategy of sending more than 20,000 new troops into Iraq,” but the story made no mention of the likelihood that considerably more than 20,000 troops would be sent.

In another piece that ran on Saturday, the Times looked at the squabbling between Democratic contenders for their party’s nomination for president, noting that Hillary Clinton was arguing that “a bipartisan resolution, supported by a large number of senators and soon to be debated on the Senate floor, was the most powerful way for Congress to begin the process of blocking Mr. Bush from moving ahead with his plan to send 21,000 more troops to Iraq.”

On Saturday, the Post came closest to something akin to clarity on the issue, noting the 21,500 troops are “combat troops,” but then failed to finish the thought.

On Sunday, however, the Post was back to writing that President Bush “defended his plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, saying that they would operate under new rules of engagement and that they could clear and hold troublesome areas.”

It would have taken some creativity for the reporters and editors of some of these stories to squeeze in a reference to the possibility of additional support troops going to Iraq. But the issue is too important not to spend a little extra time, and a few more lines, to give the public the full story of what is going on, and how many more American soldiers may be sent to serve in a war zone.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.