By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Army has been bent but not broken by the stress of fighting the Iraq war, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
"There has been a good deal of concern about the condition of the Army, leading some to even speculate that it is broken. I think not," Gates said in remarks prepared for a speech to a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of Army soldiers.
"But while the Army is certainly not broken, it is under stress and as (Army Chief of Staff) Gen. (George) Casey put it recently, ‘out of balance’," he said.
Critics of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies including Democrats in Congress have warned that extended duties and numerous redeployments to Iraq have jeopardized the Army’s all-volunteer force structure.
In remarks for delivery to the Association of the U.S. Army, Gates emphasized that morale, discipline and reenlistment remain high with recruitment on target, while soldiers in Iraq continue to show resilience under grueling conditions.
The Pentagon said on Wednesday the U.S. military met its major recruiting goals in 2007, but 18 percent of Army recruits needed waivers for past criminal behavior.
There are currently 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, about 120,000 of them Army soldiers.
Gates assured soldiers that relief was on the way.
"While U.S. forces will play some role in Iraq for years to come, a reduction in the size of our commitment there is inevitable. Most of the serious discussion today is over when and how," he said.
The administration expects to begin later this year bringing home some of the 20,000 combat troops deployed as part of the president’s surge strategy to stabilize Baghdad.
Gates has said he hopes forces can be reduced to about 100,000 by January 2009, when the next president takes office.
He also has agreed to boost the Army’s ranks by 65,000 to 547,000 soldiers by 2010, which would help reduce strain on the military.
Gates said the United States would face unconventional warfare, like that seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, for years. He said such conflicts would be political in nature and that all parts of the U.S. government would need to be involved to win.
"Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior — of friends, adversaries and most importantly the people in between," he said.