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A bigger Army for a longer conflict

What has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the start of our military involvement there?

Unless you've been paying careful attention, you can be forgiven for not knowing that the answer is this month, July 2009 -- which still has more than a week left in it. A roadside explosion killed four Americans on Monday, meaning at least 30 have died this month; the previous high was 28 in June 2008.

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In a related development Monday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that the Army will increase by as many as 22,000 troops in response to the military buildup in Afghanistan and our continuing efforts in Iraq.

This is extremely welcome news. For years, the military has been stretched to the breaking point, with multiple deployments and insufficient rest time between those deployments becoming the norm. According to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, visiting soldiers in Afghanistan, found that many had served third, fourth and fifth deployments; one Camp Leatherneck veteran was serving overseas for the SIXTH time. That's outrageous -- and dangerous.

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[Agence France-Presse/Getty Images photo]

As former assistant defense secretary Lawrence J. Korb wrote recently on The Baltimore Sun's op-ed page, the demands of two wars on an insufficient force are taking a dreadful toll. Mr. Korb wrote: "As a result of these back-to-back deployments, some 350,000 troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from anxiety, stress or other emotional problems. Many also suffer from depression, and last year 140 soldiers committed suicide."

And yet, boosting recruitment might only be a partial solution. Mr. Korb also noted that the Army has been forced in recent years to lower its standards, allowing in many more recruits with criminal records and questionable mental health, with occasional horrendous consequences. One silver lining of the recession, at lest as far as the military is concerned: As unemployment grows, the ranks of qualified military recruits are likely to swell, perhaps allowing Mr. Gates to meet his goal without further lowering of standards.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the only long-term answers to the problem of insufficient troop strength are either a military draft or an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And neither of those options seems likely to come to pass anytime soon.

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