A Senate hearing on Thursday to consider the impact of sequester cuts to the military briefly became a forum for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to warn that the U.S. needs to take a lesson from the increasing violence in Iraq when it considers withdrawal plans for Afghanistan.
"Progress has been made [in Afghanistan]," Odierno told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "[But]there are those who want to go back and take control, and there are extremist organizations that will directly threaten the United States."
"We have come too far, we have invested too much for us to back away from that now, because we're close on the cusp, I think, of being successful [there] and I think it's important that we understand that, and we should draw lessons from what we are seeing in Iraq, by the way, as we move forward," he said.
The U.S. withdrew forces from Iraq in August 2010 because the two countries could not reach a status-of-forces agreement that gave the U.S. jurisdiction over American troops accused of crimes.
Since then, conflicts between Sunni and Shia groups have risen again, and a radical group affiliated with al-Qaida has emerged. A recent UN report concluded that nearly 1,000 Iraqis died in October alone; more than 800 were civilians. According to reports, more than 6,000 Iraqis have been killed this year.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have been trying to work out an agreement that will make it possible for the U.S. to keep troops on the ground there and assist with Afghan security. But it will also hinge on a security deal that keeps American troops outside the Afghan justice system.
The U.S. is scheduled to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, but leave behind forces to train and assist Afghan security forces. Just what the American presence would like has yet to be determined.
Odierno told lawmakers on Thursday that there is no way to describe what the end-strength picture for Americans in Afghanistan will be after 2014 until a bilateral security agreement is reached.
"We're certainly hopeful that we will get that agreement with the Afghan government that allows our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to continue to operate in Afghanistan," he said.
Of the sequester cuts, Odierno and his fellow service chiefs all painted a bleak picture going forward with shrinking budgets translating into diminished readiness, continued curtailment of training and maintenance, and delays in acquiring important weapons systems.
Odierno said the Army will suspend or delay more than a hundred acquisition programs and reduce active-duty end-strength to about 420,000 troops. The Army National Guard will be pared down to 315,000 and the Army Reserve to about 185,000, he said.
"This will represent a total Army end strength reduction of more than 18 percent over seven years," he said, which includes a 26 percent reduction on the active-duty side.
The smaller size and cuts to training and equipment, he said, leaves the U.S. in position of taking more casualties in the event the military is suddenly called up for another war.
That was also the argument made by the other service chiefs, including Marine Commandant Gen. John Amos. The sequester cuts will leave the Corps with about 174,000 Marines and a dwell time – deployment to training period – of 1:2, he said.
That means six months deployed and 12 months back in garrison for training and recuperation. That's "dangerously close to the same combat operational tempo we had in Iraq and Afghanistan while fighting in multiple theaters and maintaining steady state amphibious operations around the world," Amos said.
He called it "a formula for more American casualties."
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said the cuts would severely cut into their service operations and readiness, as well.
Senators offered generous praise to all the service chiefs for their work and leadership, with some confessing that Congress was at fault for the current budget crisis.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pointed out that the Senate previously voted to repeal the sequester cuts, but failed to get the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to pass the bill.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, expressed regret that Congress passed the sequester cuts legislation under the belief they would be so drastic lawmakers would agree to a budget and thereby make them unnecessary.
He then quoted former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as recently saying that Washington's inability to govern poses the "biggest threat to U.S. national security."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also praised the four-stars for their work and patriotism, but also asked about the role the military has played in its budget problems. He said the services' headquarters staffs have grown dramatically in recent years notwithstanding the need to trim budgets.
He also hit the chiefs on the Pentagon's routine search for more money for programs that gone into significant cost overruns, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
McCain, after reminding Greenert of his testimony that the Navy needs another $500 million for the Ford, pointed out that the ship already is saddled with a $2 billion cost overrun. He then asked Greenert if anyone had been fired over the $2 billion overrun.
When Greenert said he did not know the Arizona senator told him he should know that.
McCain took the same line to Welsh, asking if anyone had been fired for the JSF cost overruns.
"We are holding people accountable but we are not holding them accountable enough," Odierno said.