Border plan triggers concerns in Washington

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Bush administration plans to deploy thousands of National Guard troops to shore up the U.S.-Mexico border were getting mixed reviews Tuesday, with members of Congress questioning whether it would strain a force stretched thin by wars and natural disasters.

Pentagon officials tried to tamp down those concerns, insisting the decision to use up to 6,000 Guard members to secure the porous 2,000-mile border would not overtax the guard or impair troops' ability to train or prepare for combat.

Other military experts, however, suggest that moving Guard troops to the four border states for two- to three-week shifts won't be nearly enough to get the job done.

"The outstanding question is, is this really going to make a difference in terms of stemming illegal immigration?" said Andrew Krepinevich, military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "When you look at a border that is several thousand miles long, it really is difficult to see how 6,000 Guardsmen are really going to make that much of a difference."

Whether too much or too little, the proposal appeared to raise more questions than it answered. And the key worry mentioned by members of Congress was the potential strain on the Guard, which has deployed more than 300,000 of its 444,000 troops nationwide to Iraq, Afghan-istan and global operations against terror since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We're still worried. That's a concern," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "We were worried about the Guard being strained even before Katrina," the August hurricane that devastated parts of the Gulf Coast.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, R-Va., posed similar questions in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and planned a hearing on the matter for Wednesday.

McCain and Warner said they believe the guard is up to the task -- an assertion made repeatedly by Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

"We're trained, we're ready to do this, and we're able to do this," Blum said during a briefing at the White House.

"Your National Guard will not do this at the expense of its global mission, that we're performing on a global war on terrorism. ... And we will certainly not do this in any manner that does not make us at least as prepared as we were for Hurricane Katrina last year."

Congress long has been concerned about giving too many duties to the National Guard, which has seen heavy deployments to Iraq.

Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, president of the National Guard Association, said that although details have not yet been ironed out, much of the work will coincide with the missions of the units being used.

"Barring any significant changes, we should have sufficient forces to do all of our missions," Koper said. "I don't believe that this particular mission -- 6,000 or so National Guardsmen out of a force of 440,000 -- should not overtax us."

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense, said Guard members assigned to the border would be given task "directly related to their military skills normally associated with their war fighting and disaster response missions."


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