With the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan finally beginning to wind down, the Army said on Friday that combat troops will soon deploy for nine months, rather than a year.
The new policy, unveiled by Army Secretary John McHugh, takes effect on January 1, 2012, and applies to most active-duty, National Guard, and Army Reserve troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Egypt. Army officials hope to shorten the tours of all remaining combat troops later that year.
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The personnel shift was made possible by the Pentagon’s ongoing draw-down of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, which peaked at 170,000 during the height of the Bush administration’s troop surge there is now at 46,000 and falling. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year and 23,000 more by September 2012.
The move to shorter combat tours, which was immediately cheered by many soldiers and their families, represents one of the Pentagon’s strongest moves to date to ease the strains on the over-stretched military after a decade of nearly continuous conflict.
Year-long tours had largely been in keeping with the military’s historical norms—soldiers serving during the Vietnam War typically deployed for 12 months—but troops fighting in earlier conflicts rarely had to do more than one or possibly two overseas tours.
That has not been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where many soldiers, particularly from Army infantry and aviation units, have done three, four, and in some cases five lengthy tours in the war zone. Some soldiers have done even lengthier tours: during the height of the Iraq War, combat troops did 15-month deployments to the country. Senior Army officials believe the grueling length of those deployments led large numbers of troops to retire early.
The former system had also been deeply unpopular within the military because soldiers complained that they were separated from their families for far more than the official lengths of their tours. Troops bound for Iraq or Afghanistan undergo months of training inside the United States before deploying. In practical terms, that means a 12-month tour in Afghanistan actually involved at least 14 months away from home, while an ostensibly 15-month tour in Iraq actually kept soldiers separated from their families for more than a year and a half.
The new move comes as senior Army officials work to fully eradicate a second hated policy, the so-called “stop-loss” system that prevented troops from leaving the military even after their enlistments ended. At its peak, the policy impacted tens of thousands of troops, leading Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to memorably deride it as a “back-door draft.”
The Pentagon began phasing the system out in 2009 and hopes to eliminate it completely later this year.