INTERNATIONAL   

Herald Tribune    

 

A U.S. military 'at its breaking point' considers foreign recruits


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

 

WASHINGTON

 

The armed forces, already struggling to meet recruiting goals, are considering expanding the number of noncitizens in the ranks, including disputed proposals to open recruiting stations overseas and put more immigrants on a faster track to U.S. citizenship if they volunteer, according to Pentagon officials.

 

Foreign citizens' serving in the U.S. military is a highly charged issue, which could expose the Pentagon to criticism that it is essentially using mercenaries to defend the country. Other analysts voice concern that a large contingent of noncitizens under arms could jeopardize national security or reflect badly on Americans' willingness to serve in uniform.

 

The idea of signing up residents who are seeking U.S. citizenship is gaining traction as a way to address a critical need for the Pentagon, while fully absorbing some of the roughly one million immigrants that enter the United States legally each year.

 

The proposal to induct more noncitizens, which is still largely on the drawing board, has to clear a number of hurdles. So far, the Pentagon has been quiet about specifics, like who would be eligible to join, where the recruiting stations would be, and what the minimum standards might involve, like English proficiency. In the meantime, the Pentagon and the immigration authorities have expanded a program that accelerates citizenship for legal residents who volunteer for the military.

 

Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of immigrants in uniform who have become U.S. citizens has increased from 750 in 2001 to almost 4,600 last year, according to military statistics.

 

With severe manpower strains because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a mandate to expand the overall size of the military, the Pentagon is under pressure to consider a variety of proposals involving foreign recruits, according to a military affairs analyst.

 

"It works as a military idea and it works in the context of American immigration," said Thomas Donnelly, a military scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a leading proponent of recruiting more foreigners to serve in the military.

 

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, the Pentagon has warned Congress and the White House that the military is stretched "to the breaking point."

 

President George W. Bush and Robert Gates, his new defense secretary, have acknowledged that the size of the military must be expanded to help alleviate the strain on ground troops.

 

That has led Pentagon officials to consider casting a wider net for noncitizens who are already in the United States, said Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, an army spokesman.

 

Already, the army and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security have "made it easier for green-card holders who do enlist to get their citizenship," Hilferty said. Other army officials, who asked not to be identified, said personnel officials were working with Congress and other parts of the government to test the feasibility of going beyond U.S. borders to recruit soldiers and marines.

 

Currently, Pentagon policy stipulates that only immigrants legally residing in the United States are eligible to enlist. There are about 30,000 noncitizens who serve in the U.S. armed forces, making up about 2 percent of the active-duty force, according to statistics from the military and the Council on Foreign Relations. About 100 such noncitizens have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

A recent change in U.S. law, however, gave the Pentagon authority to bring immigrants to the United States if it determines it is vital to national security. So far, the Pentagon has not taken advantage of it, but the calls are growing to use this new authority.

 

Some top military thinkers believe the United States should go as far as targeting foreigners in their native countries.

 

"It's a little dramatic," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and another supporter of the proposal. "But if you don't get some new idea how to do this, we will not be able to achieve an increase" in the size of the armed forces.

 

Other nations recruit foreign citizens: In France, the famed Foreign Legion relies on about 8,000 noncitizens; and Nepalese Gurkhas have fought and died with British Army forces for two centuries.