What has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the start of our military involvement there?
Anyone who hasn't been paying careful attention could be forgiven for not knowing that the answer is July 2009 - which still has four days left in it. A roadside explosion killed four Americans last Monday, meaning at least 30 have died this month; the previous high was 28 in June 2008.
On the same day as the explosion in eastern Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that the Army will increase in size by as many as 22,000 troops in response to the 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, while visiting soldiers in Afghanistan, found that many had served third, fourth and even fifth deployments; one Camp Leatherneck veteran was serving overseas for the sixth time. That's outrageous - and dangerous.
Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, wrote recently on The Baltimore Sun's op-ed page that the demands of two wars on an insufficient force are taking a dreadful toll. Mr. Korb wrote that as a result of those demands, some 350,000 troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from anxiety, stress or other emotional problems. 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. That policy has occastionally produced horrendous consequences. Private Steven Dale Green, a high school dropout with three criminal convictions and psychological problems, was convicted of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then killing her and three members of her family in Iraq.
Make no mistake, we will have large numbers of troops in Afghanistan for many years to come. President Barack Obama has identified Afghanistan as the main front in the fight against Islamic terrorists. He was right to renew the focus on stabilizing that country - a goal that had suffered badly from former President George W. Bush's long diversion of resources and attention to Iraq. And yet, it is still unclear what our precise objective is there, or what "victory" would look like.
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 current goal without further lowering of standards. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether a long-term commitment to Afghanistan can be sustained by an all-volunteer force.