Like every other VIP that’s flown into the Green Zone for the dog & pony-grip & grin, Barack Obama was transported safely from Iraq 48 hours later, leaving tens of thousands of US troops behind. In his wake, the media attention and with it, the mind-numbing debate over timelines and time horizons and status of forces agreements will eventually give way to more pressing issues for these troops whose main contact with home is a tiny camera assisting their email: how to pay the bills, kids acting out in school, the baby on the way.

But the image of Obama and his media pack flying away is indeed symbolic in that lost in the bloodless debate over whether soldiers and Marines should be coming home now or later, at fixed dates or after “aspirational goals” are met, is that experts, including top Army generals, have been saying for over a year that the current force strength cannot keep up with today’s deployment schedule without breaking the service and the men and women in it.

In fact, it seems that talking about the true state of our force strength has become nothing but a strange exercise in denial, with a little smoke and mirrors to keep the American people distracted. The surge allowed for adding five brigades to the existing 15 in Iraq back in March of ’07. Now that the surge is technically over, those five brigades have been coming home, and will be out of Iraq by the end of the month, according to military officials. That leaves the force strength the same, if not slightly higher than when the surge began — about 140,000 troops. President Bush has said there will be no further draw-downs until conditions improve more. Though there is always the tease — part of the smoke and mirrors component — of future withdrawals, we wait endlessly for something more official.

As I wrote for TAC back in June , many believe that the surge was ended not so much for its tactical successes, but because the brigades had to come home. The 15-month deployments and close to 1:1 deployment/dwell time ratio is and was untenable (the healthiest would be 1:4 and that is a fantasy in today’s war). Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan told me at the time, “We cannot replace them out there without a full mobilization, without total access to the reserve and the National Guard. In the situation now, we cannot do that … we either have to change our strategy or make our Army bigger.”

While the Army and Marine Corps have orders by Bush to grow by 92,000 by 2012, they can hardly expect to start supplying fresh troops and Marines to the battlefield today. As it were, no less than 13 National Guard brigades have already been called up for (re)deployment to Iraq through 2009, ostensibly to replace exhausted active duty components there now.

To be fair, the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign is to bring most troops home within 16 months. However, much of this talk these days is balanced out by his desire to send more troops into Afghanistan. Even worse, say critics Larry Korb and Fred Kaplan, John McCain’s plan not only excludes a timeline for drawing down troops in Iraq, but putting even more troops than Obama envisions in Afghanistan.

Kaplan: Here’s the problem: The U.S. Army is stretched so thin that, according to its own calculations, no extra combat units can be sent to Afghanistan unless the same number of units is pulled out of Iraq. There is no flexibility here. So if McCain wants to put three more brigades in Afghanistan, where is he going to get them?

Referring to Obama’s call for withdrawing troops from Iraq, McCain says, “Sen. Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq.”

Cute, but beside the point. Military strategy involves the application of resources to war aims. If McCain wins the White House, the first thing the Joint Chiefs will tell him is that they don’t have the resources to fulfill his war aims.

Korb, with Laura Conley: Sen. McCain’s policy does not account for the strain placed on U.S. forces due to repeated deployments. Of the nearly 1.7 million U.S. soldiers who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, almost 600,000 have been deployed more than once. As the large U.S. presence in Iraq continues to require repeated deployments, often with insufficient time between tours of duty, the ability of the military to provide significant numbers of combat-ready forces for Afghanistan is diminished.

Increasing security in Afghanistan must be the primary, though not sole priority of the United States. U.S. policy in Afghanistan can and must be revitalized with a commitment to building Afghan government capacity, reining in corruption, increasing reconstruction efforts, removing the terrorist safe haven in Pakistan, and reducing the production of opium.

As usual, as these guys point out, the human side of the debate gets lost, particularly in jargon like “aspirational goals,” but let’s get serious here: tens of thousands of men and women have been repeatedly deploying in and out of this warzone for six years, on stints that last anywhere from seven to 18 month each, depending on their branch of service and when they were deployed. Their individual commitments rival, if not exceed, that of their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, yet this aspect of the war seems to get lost. Leave the brigades, take out the brigades, transfer the brigades, bring home the brigades — we have to remember there are people involved. As it stands today, 4,125 servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq, 33,000 wounded in action (that doesn’t include tens of thousands of non-hostile injuries and illnesses); 560 killed in Afghanistan. Many lives have been put on hold for the better part of this decade, and, at least now, with no end in sight.

I was struck by the resignation in the tone of one soldier interviewed by the Washington Post earlier this week on the success of the surge. Asked if the surge was worth it, Spec. Derek Taylor, 23, of West Virginia, said, “It’s worth it, and it’s not worth it …I have a wife and a kid. I go home, and my daughter is 2. She probably doesn’t remember who I am.”

UPDATE: Reuters reported on Tuesday that the last of the surge brigades have indeed left Iraq, leaving behind approximately 147,000 US troops, “well above” the pre-surge range of 130,000.