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WASHINGTON — Speaking to an Army “under stress,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates promised Wednesday that relief is on the way.

“While U.S. forces will play a role in Iraq for years to come, a reduction in the size of our commitment is inevitable,” Gates said at the 2007 meeting of the Association of the United States Army, the largest annual gathering of Army members.

Gates also said he supports the Army’s plans to speed its growth by 65,000 soldiers “as long as we can do so without sacrificing quality,” and that new programs are coming online to support families.

Gates also had a warning: Enemies have learned that the best way to attack America is with guerrilla tactics, and the Army will need to stay ready to keep fighting counterinsurgencies, not large-scale wars.

This has happened before, Gates noted.

After Vietnam, the Army “relegated unconventional warfare to the margins of training, doctrine and budget priorities,” which worked for the Cold War and “the triumph of Desert Storm.”

But it left us unprepared to deal with operations that followed in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and Afghanistan and Iraq.

And although the Army has done “miraculous” work catching up since, Gates said, potential enemies have had ample opportunity to study America’s military weaknesses.

“Put simply, our enemies and potential adversaries — including nation-states — have gone to school on us,” he said.

As a result, “it’s hard to conceive any country challenging the United States directly on the ground,” Gates said, “at least for some years to come.”

Gates said that one of the challenges will be for the Army to figure out how to incorporate technology without losing “the human and cultural dimensions of the irregular battlefield.”

He used the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar effort against roadside bombs as an example, saying that despite the huge sums spent to date on technologies to defeat the weapons, the best way to defeat the weapons remains tips from locals about who is building the bombs and where they have been placed.

Gates also had a warning for the Army to help soldiers who are wounded in battle transition smoothly to the next phase of their lives.

“The lapses that have occurred in this area will not be tolerated or repeated,” Gates said.

His words came in the aftermath of media reports early this year that showed wounded Iraq veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center living in poor conditions at the hospital led to the firing of the hospital’s commander Maj. Gen. George Weightman.

The situation led to the dismissal of Army Secretary Francis Harvey by Gates.

Harvey’s successor, Pete Geren, subsequently named Army Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, younger brother of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, as Walter Reed commander.

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