Despite obligations in Iraq and continuing hurricane recovery efforts in the South, officials with the National Guard suggested yesterday that its forces could take on added border security duties without unduly straining the organization.
Their assessment came amid criticisms that President Bush's plan to deploy several thousand Guard members in assisting with border patrols would overly burden units stretched thin by other demands.
"By any rational measure, this wouldn't strain the Guard's resources much," said Joseph Balkoski, command historian of the Maryland National Guard.
Of the 444,000 men and women assigned to the National Guard, fewer than 20 percent - including roughly 71,000 engaged in the war on terror - are on active military duty, said Mark Allen, chief spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington.
Allen declined to comment directly about the president's plan, but he suggested that fears about the Guard being overtaxed are misplaced.
"At any given time, 5,000 or 10,000 Guardsmen might be engaged in matters other than the war on terror," leaving more than 360,000 available for other assignments, he said. About 420 Guardsmen are already working in counter-drug operations along the borders in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to Allen.
Bush's plan to send up to 6,000 Guard troops for about two weeks at a time could mean more than 150,000 troops rotating through.
The assessments of Guard officials ran counter to criticisms from politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Democratic Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Harry Reid of Nevada, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
"We have stretched these men and women so thin, so thin," Biden told the Associated Press on Sunday, " ... that I wonder how they're going to be able to do it."
Easily, according to Balkoski, author of the 1991 book The Maryland National Guard: A History of Maryland's Military Forces.
"People wonder why we're doing this to the Guard when it's under strain," he said from his office at the 5th Regiment Armory yesterday. "I say this to people all the time: The strain is greater than it has been since World War II. But between WWII and 9/11, the deployments were usually zero. Since 9/11, they have run about 12 percent.
"Even now, in the midst of the war on terror, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and given this mission, if it does happen, 85 percent will not be called up.
"That would matter to those called, of course, but it doesn't create the kind of strain many politicians are describing," he said.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said he was unfamiliar with the figures Allen and Balkoski cited.
"Senator Reid has indicated support for the proposal," Manley said. "But ... he does have important specific questions he wants the president to address. For example, how, exactly, will [the National Guard] be able to take on other, unexpected missions while they're stationed at the border?"
In remarks on the Senate floor yesterday in advance of the president's speech, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts echoed Manley.
"This is no time to promote the deployment of the National Guard along the border," Kennedy said. "The administration must resist its first impulse to address every challenge by calling in the troops. The National Guard already is stretched to the limit by repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as from providing disaster assistance in their own states."
Maj. Charles Kohler, public affairs officer for the Maryland National Guard, said there are good answers to the sorts of questions the senators are posing.
Guardsmen deployed to the border would be taken from among the more than 350,000 not currently on full-time military duty, he said: "None would be taken from work in the war on terror or their federal mission."