Questions Remain As Iraq Withdrawal Deadline Looms

Guests

Mike Shuster, foreign correspondent, NPR
Ted Koppel, commentator

The late 2011 deadline is approaching for U.S. troops to completely withdraw from Iraq. Some say the U.S. should be out as soon as possible, but others say it's too soon, and that U.S. troops are needed to continue addressing political and security concerns.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Who thought Iraq would end up as the forgotten war? While bombs continue to detonate, the level of violence continues to decline. U.S. forces take part in some combat, but less. And in public at least, the Iraqi government acts as if the withdrawal of U.S. forces is on track to be complete on schedule by the end of the year.

Yet questions persist as to whether that's either feasible or wise, also about the number of former military duties transferred to U.S. contractors, and there are talks to extend the withdrawal date; they're continuing.

In a few moments, commentator Ted Koppel joins us. Later in the program, a town tries walls of shame to persuade owners of abandoned property to clean up dilapidated buildings.

But first, Iraq. Given the state of Iraq's forces and given the crises elsewhere in the region, should U.S. forces stay on or withdraw on schedule? We'd especially like to hear from those of you who served in Iraq: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who joins us by phone from Baghdad. Mike, always nice to have you with us.

MIKE SHUSTER: Thanks, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And if any U.S. forces are to stay, the Iraqi government would have to formally request that. Is anybody in the Iraqi government talking about that?

SHUSTER: No, they're not really talking about it at the moment, Neal. Don't forget, it was a year ago that the last elections for the current government were held. And for the better part of 2010, the Iraqis - the Iraqi leaders were unable to put together a coalition and a real government. That didn't happen until Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, put together a workable or semi-workable coalition at the end of December. And so the Iraqis haven't had the opportunity to really talk about this.

Furthermore, we're now almost three months into 2011, and no defense minister has been chosen for this government, and no interior minister, which are the ministries most relevant to the issue of whether U.S. troops ought to stay and what kind of work they would do if they were to stay beyond the end of this year.

CONAN: What do...

SHUSTER: There are many, many issues that the Iraqis are dealing with, but this particular issue of the presence of the Americans beyond the end of this year is not one that they're focused on just yet.

CONAN: What do Iraqi officials say when reporters quote Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said talks are underway to extend the deadline?

SHUSTER: They basically - I think they would probably acknowledge in private that there may be some talks. But it doesn't feel, to an outside like myself, that they've gotten very far. And General Lloyd Austin, who is the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq at the moment, has expressed the frustration that the Iraqis haven't concentrated on this issue because time is running out.

CONAN: And how many U.S. troops remain in Iraq right now?

SHUSTER: I think just under 50,000, and they're not really on (technical difficulties). They're here now in what they call an assist and advise capacity. They are taking part in some patrols in the streets in Mosul, where the violence is still pretty bad, but in the rest of Iraq, and particularly here in Baghdad, since I've been here, I haven't seen any American troops on the streets at all.

CONAN: And we apologize for the squeaks on the satellite telephone line from Baghdad. But Mike, you talk about U.S. troops in a reduced role. What about Iraqi forces? Are they in any position to handle issues like, well: Is there an Iraqi air force?

SHUSTER: No, there's not an Iraqi air force, and that's, in fact, one of the key issues that the Americans here want to focus on. General Austin has said that as far as internal security, the Iraqis are pretty close to being capable of taking care of that, but not external sovereignty. That is, not the borders and not the skies.

And the last time I was here, Neal, it was last August, and they were talking about this, as well. It doesn't seem that they've made a great deal of progress since then.

But General Austin told NPR recently that there's a whole series of key training missions that the United States wants to be involved in in order to build a long-term strategic relationship with Iraq, from the use of tanks to integrating weapons systems to integrating with air power to gaining a capacity, an early-warning capacity and an integrated air defense system. And all of that, U.S. military officials have said, takes years, not months.

CONAN: We're talking about the role of U.S. forces. There's also many thousands of U.S. civilians in Iraq in that enormous U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Could some of the missions - are some of the missions previously conducted by the military, those training missions, being turned over to civilians?

SHUSTER: Yes, there are. It's said that there are tens of thousands of contractors here, and they have varying degrees of military experience.

But this kind of integrated, long-term training, in order to build up the Iraqi military in such a way that the Iraqi military itself could defend the sovereignty of the country, that is defend the borders of Iraq and defend the skies over Iraq, it doesn't seem that the contractors are as well-placed to do that kind of integrated training as the Pentagon is. And that's the argument that General Austin has made and I think other military - high military officials in the United States are trying to make.

CONAN: What kind of political price would Prime Minister Maliki have to pay if he were to say, well, maybe the United States should stay on?

SHUSTER: That's a good question, and I think it's difficult to say at this point, Neal. But you have to realize that when the issue of the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq comes up, nearly everybody now says we want them out.

And when there's talk of the deadline at the end of this year and the possibility of extending that deadline, nearly everybody, nearly all the factions, with perhaps the one exception of the Kurds in the north, everybody wants, or says they want the United States to leave, to get most of the U.S. troops out.

Now, it's also a question as to how many U.S. forces would actually be needed in order to do the kind of training that General Austin is talking about. I don't think - I don't think 50,000 is a number that's necessary. But perhaps in some thousands, American forces would have to stay in order to continue this kind of training if the Iraqi government wants to be trained by the United States.

CONAN: There's also another factor to add in, and that's the revolutions underway in the Middle East, elsewhere in the Middle East. Has that played into the situation there in Iraq at all? And does it change anybody's calculations on the usefulness of Iraq to the United States?

SHUSTER: That's another good question. It certainly is playing into the internal situation now. In just the past 10 days, there have been three sets of demonstrations, quite small, quite modest and quite peaceful. But it sort of sent a shockwave through the Iraqi political establishment.

The first demonstrations, which occurred last Friday, a week ago, a week prior, were met with violence by Iraqi internal security forces, and some people were actually killed in the violence. And these were relatively peaceful demonstrations. They held more demonstrations last Friday, and wisely, the Iraqi government held back.

And then there were even smaller groups, a few hundred, in the center of Baghdad yesterday, that protested - they're protesting corruption on the part of the Iraqi government and the inability of the government to provide the necessary services, clean up the city, that is necessary. And it seems that this took Nouri al-Maliki's government by surprise, and now they're trying to figure out how to deal with it.

And everybody realizes that this is inspired by, to some degree, the Arab revolt elsewhere in the Middle East and inspired by - but with an Iraqi twist to it, given the state of affairs in Iraq at this point, eight years after the U.S. invasion.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

SHUSTER: Not at all, Neal.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster on the line with us from Baghdad. Also with us today, NPR commentator Ted Koppel, who joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always good to have you on the program, as well.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And just following up on that point with - just talked about with Mike, you've said before that you believe the United States and Iraq, it's in both countries' interest to keep some U.S. forces in there. How does that calculation change given the Arab revolt, as Mike described it?

KOPPEL: Well, I think first of all - and Mike has set the table very nicely, but I think first of all, looking at it through the prism of American interests, there's no question that the United States has always wanted a surrogate, or at the very least a base from which U.S. military forces can operate in the Persian Gulf to ensure the continued flow of Persian Gulf oil and natural gas through the Strait of Hormuz.

The issue now is: Where are they going to be? We have tremendous demonstrations in Bahrain, which is a tiny little spot of an island that nevertheless serves as headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

We used to have bases in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis found that to be politically untenable and have pushed us out of there. It used to be, for many, many years, that Iran, under the shah, was the U.S. surrogate, and Iranian forces and the Iranian air force maintained a stability in the Persian Gulf.

And I think it would be illogical not to look at Iraq as factoring into American strategic interests over the next few years, with the expectation that the United States is going to be able to maintain some kind of a military presence in Iraq.

CONAN: What's in it for the Iraqis?

KOPPEL: Well, certainly money is in it for the Iraqis, and their own security is in it for the Iraqis. As Mike correctly pointed out, nobody thinks that the Iraqi military is capable of withstanding any kind of -he didn't use the term invasion - but any kind of foreign intervention.

Remember, Iran and Iraq had a bloody eight-year-long war during the 1980s in which roughly 800,000 people were killed on both sides. These days, Iran plays a totally different role with regard to Iraq because its political influence has grown enormously. And indeed, Iraq's presence in the Persian Gulf has become far more influential thanks to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It always used to be Saddam Hussein, who, through his brutality and because no one could be entirely sure of what his intentions were in that part of the world, that a certain stability was maintained in the Persian Gulf between Iraq and Iran.

That's gone. The Iranians have gained enormously by the fact that the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein.

CONAN: NPR commentator Ted Koppel. Well, should the United States withdraw its troops on schedule? Should they extend their stay in Iraq? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

Extending the withdrawal deadline in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told Congress, is still something the U.S. is talking about. But troops cannot stay beyond the December 31 deadline unless Iraqis initiate the conversation.

Given the state of Iraq's forces, the crises elsewhere in the region, should U.S. forces stay on in Iraq or withdraw as planned? We'd especially like to hear from those of you who served in Iraq: 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Ted Koppel, NPR commentator, and we'll go to the phone and talk with Kahlil(ph). Kahlil joins us from Winston-Salem.

KAHLID(ph) (Caller): Yes, Neal, thank you very much for this wonderful program.

CONAN: Thank you.

KAHLID: I wanted to say that the withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Iraq will have devastating consequences, and the reasons are as follows: The Iraqi army, the problem with the Iraqi army, in addition to its inability to provide the security for the Iraqi army, its loyalty is not to the Iraqi constitution. Rather, its loyalty is to some of the political parties in Iraq which can easily be influenced by the regimes in some of the neighboring countries, such as Iran and Syria.

Those political parties are - some of them are receiving orders from Iran and Syria and some others from Turkey in order to destabilize the political process in Iraq. Iran's ambitions are to make sure that the U.S.'s democratic process in Iraq fails so that their people will not ask their regimes the same thing.

So the withdrawal of the U.S. army from Iraq would, I believe, would create further instability in the country because they are not ready to provide the security. They are not ready equipment-wise, training-wise, and most importantly they are not really disciplined.

CONAN: And please forgive me. I misread your name. It's Khalid, not Khalil. And may I ask what you know about it, what your interest is?

KHALID: Well, I served with the U.S. Army as a translator, training the Iraqi army for three years, starting 2005 through 2008. So I saw the Iraqi army. I saw the structure, I saw the training, and I saw its loyalty.

I will give you an example: Back in 2007, I was working with one of the divisions in the western part of the country, and orders came from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, ordering one of the Iraqi armed units to go to the south part of the country and fight the insurgency.

Over 500 soldiers in the unit quit working for the Iraqi army simply because they didn't want to fight in the south part of the country. They wanted to stay and serve in the western part of the country, where they were actually from.

So they are not really - they are not disciplined. They are not loyal to the constitution yet.

CONAN: Khalid, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

KHALID: No problem.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, that raises questions about the fundamental -really, you'd heard those questions raised most often about the interior ministry forces rather than the military forces in Iraq, but that they were more loyal to party than to the government.

KOPPEL: Neal, I don't think there is any question that both the -certainly the Pentagon and I believe probably the military in Iraq also does not want to see the complete drawdown of U.S. forces at the end of this year from Iraq.

I think what's happening, for political reasons, both political reasons to serve the interests of the White House and political reasons to serve the interests of Prime Minister Maliki, there is something of a shell game going on right now.

The U.S. embassy to which you referred earlier on is quite literally the largest embassy in the universe. It is going to have staffing somewhere in excess of 17,000 people. There is no other embassy in the world that comes even close to that, no other U.S. embassy, and I don't think any other embassy comes even close to that.

Many of those 17,000 will be the military/civilian contractors that you were referring to before, and you're going to have this bizarre situation where the State Department, in effect, is going to be running the military operations that previous were run by the Pentagon.

All of that, of course, will happen if indeed all U.S. troops are pulled out, as is currently anticipated, by the end of this year. Speaking quite frankly, I think it would be a disaster.

CONAN: Here's an email from Marion(ph), who writes: It is time for the USA to realize that our military is not wanted there and is considered at this point to be an anti-Islamic force, possibly spies for Israel.

Massive treasure and many U.S. and coalition forces were lost in the enormous debacle. The lives are lost forever.

This from John(ph) in South Lake Tahoe, California: How many private contractors and permanent military bases will we be leaving in Iraq, at what cost, beyond the so-called withdrawal date? If we can't afford funding for child care, education, the EPA or for NPR, how can we possibly afford delaying the withdrawal of troops from a country that does not want us there and never did?

KOPPEL: Well, your last emailer actually makes a point that I neglected to make before, and that is in replacing military people with former military people who are now civilian contractors, the price of poker goes up.

Each of those men, on average, is paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, which as most of your listeners probably know is somewhat in excess of what our men and women in uniform earn.

CONAN: Yet why keep them there either? The United States is not wanted, and priorities - there are priorities to spend that money at home. Why throw good money after bad, essentially?

KOPPEL: Well, I mean certainly those who believe that we have no role, never did have a role in Iraq, I guess you'd have to agree with them. I would make the point, A) whatever your feelings are or were about the initial invasion of Iraq and whether that was justified or whether it is - it was smart ever to get in there in the first place, the fact of the matter is now that we have an enormous amount both in blood and treasure invested in that country, and were we to pull out now, at a time of greater instability in that region than we have seen in many, many years - we don't know what's going to happen next in Egypt, we don't know what's going to happen in Bahrain, we don't know what's going to happen in Yemen or in Libya, and for us just to precipitously pull out, before the Iraqis are capable of taking care of their own security, I think would be very unwise.

CONAN: Let's go next to Matthew(ph), Matthew with us from Charlotte.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

MATTHEW: I'd like to thank you gentlemen for helping us out with NPR. It's a wonderful program.

CONAN: Thank you.

MATTHEW: My basic point is that at a certain point we have to just, you know, cut our losses. You know, when I see our domestic situation and the schools in my local area struggling for funds, and I see us just constantly - billions and billions and billions of dollars in an effort to stabilize that region that wasn't stable when we got there, it's not stable now and will not be stable tomorrow, I question, you know, why do we keep throwing good money after bad?

Yes, the area, you know, Khalid made some good points about loyalty of the army, but you know, we've been there for years now, and it still hasn't changed. And I don't think it's going to change in the future.

And so therefore at a certain point we have to say: Hey, let's protect our own a little bit and start pulling out. I agree with taking our troops out of there.

CONAN: Matthew, thanks very much for the call. Ted Koppel, he does raise a good question. If the deadline is not the end of this year, then when?

KOPPEL: He raises an excellent question, but I'm afraid it's raised through the prism that we have been learned to - that we have been taught to accept over the last few years, and that is that the United States is in Iraq for Iraq's interests. We're not.

We're there because of U.S. interests, and those U.S. interests can be summarized quite simply in one or two words: oil and natural gas. The stability of the Persian Gulf is of enormous national interest to the United States.

No politician wants to send young men and women to die for oil. But the fact of the matter is that it is one of the politically most - no pun intended - inflammable issues. When the price of gasoline goes up, as it is going up right now, to $4 a gallon, if we were to leave before there is genuine stability in Iraq, if that area no longer had the oversight of American military, I think you could very easily see the price of oil go up to seven, eight, nine dollars a gallon.

And the fact of the matter is then you would have all kinds of political yelling and screaming on Capitol Hill, all kinds of pressure being raised by the American public, which would not want to see that happen to its economy.

The economic pressure that would flow out of the collapse of Iraq if that were to happen would be huge.

CONAN: We forget Iraq is, of course, a major oil producer in itself and could be an even more important oil producer in the future.

KOPPEL: Has the second largest - has the second largest resources behind Saudi Arabia.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Shawn(ph). Shawn with us from Logan in Utah.

SHAWN (Caller): Hello, sir. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

SHAWN: Hey, I want to discuss - I'm prior service. I was there for the invasion and there for the Baghdad security push as a combat arm. And, you know, from what I've seen, what the U.S. provide that's more valuable than anything else is the infrastructure. Not all the running water and, you know, steady supply of food and aid and things like that - we provide that balance between the Iraqi army and the national police and, you know, because a lot of them maybe have different political views, and we can tie them together and, you know, provide security background checks and things that are essential that you don't think about to keep a government that's sort of disorganized running.

And on another point, I just got to say the last caller saying, you know, we're hungry, we're poor, don't waste money over there. Hey, you know, I'm sorry you can't make your $500 car payment, but these people are thinking about eating. So you know, you really need to look at not only not only is it going to be in our best interest to keep the area secure, like we have in Germany since World War II, and no one's complaining about that, but it will be in Iraqis' interests. We can provide them that airpower. We can provide them that security, and you know, maybe a little bit of money from leasing the space.

At the same time, we provide ourselves, you know, a stable region where we can maybe profit from some oil that's freed up in the global market, and we can also provide a strategic base if for nothing else refueling aircraft for the other, you know, situations that are going on or going to go on in the future in the Middle East.

CONAN: Shawn, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SHAWN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: We're talking about the future of U.S. interest and U.S. forces in Iraq after the end of the deadline for withdrawal of all U.S. forces, currently at the end of this year, though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says there are talks underway to extend that date.

And by the way, Shawn just said there's nobody who complains about troops in Germany, that's not quite true. There are some, but again, not many. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Ted Koppel, you mentioned the numbers of contractors there. Is there any way that the contractors, if the Iraqis were to say politically we cannot afford this and U.S. forces have to get out, is there any way the contractors could perform that glue function that Shawn was just telling us about?

KOPPEL: Well, I don't know whether they can. I think it's important to make the point, however, that the only thing that is going to change is A) the scope. I mean, you're not - if as Mike Shuster said at the top, we still have about 50,000 troops there. You're not going to have 50,000 contractors working directly for the U.S. embassy, although we probably have pretty close to that number over there right now.

The only difference, Neal, is going to be they're going to be so much more below the radar. As it is, the U.S. public pays little enough attention to what's happening to U.S. troops in Iraq now. But if all of those troops for one reason or another are withdrawn by the end of this year, there have already been provisions made, and it's already in train that you're going to have, as I said before, the State Department running its own little army over there and running operations for which diplomats quite frankly have not been trained.

This ought to be - this needs to be a Pentagon operation, not a State Department operation. The first aircraft that are due to be delivered to Iraq are not scheduled to arrive for another two years, and only at that time will the United States be able to begin training not only Iraqi pilots but also Iraqi maintenance people, air traffic control people, all the people that would be necessary to run a successful air force.

The United States government has made the decision that in one form or another we're still going to have thousands of people operating out of Iraq. It's only a question as to how it can be done most effectively and most efficiently.

CONAN: Well, let's give Harry the last word. Harry with us from Chester in Vermont.

HARRY (Caller): Hello. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

HARRY: First of all, I'm an oil trader and a former contractor. I dispute the fee. I was paid 150,000 in Iraq. And since I've come home, over the last few years I've worked as an oil trader. I also dispute that fact with Mr. Koppel. The fact is that Iraq has 550 billion barrels proven reserves. It is not number two or three. It is number one, because they figure Saudi Arabia - we figure Saudi Arabia has 200 billion barrels. So when you look at that, the fact is, Iraq is sitting on $16 trillion worth of oil plus, and they can well afford to pay us to stay there.

Number two, if they revalued their currency, it would seem, as the traders figure, that they would put more money into the pockets of the Iraqi people.

CONAN: So you think United States forces should stay, but that the Iraqis should pay more for it?

HARRY: Absolutely. They have to stay because of the 550 billion proven reserves of oil, because what would happen if they were invaded and their oil taken over by God knows who, al-Qaeda or whatever. But they could solve a lot of their economic problems by revaluing their currency. At one time it was $2.80 to one dinar under Saddam Hussein. Trouble is they're not producing enough oil.

They have sour crude there which has to be refined. It's not sweet crude like in Libya. But eventually they'll get their act together. Yes, they need American help, but we really have to protect their reserves, because if we don't and it falls into the wrong hands, you know what's going to happen.

CONAN: All right. Harry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HARRY: You're welcome.

CONAN: And, Ted, well, corrected on a couple of facts, but I think he agrees with you.

KOPPEL: I don't think it changes the direction of the point I was trying to make. If Harry was earning 150, I think he was probably earning more than many of the young contractors who are over there, but on average I think the hundred thousand dollar figure is correct. And I've never heard or read that Iraq has greater reserves than Saudi Arabia. But who knows, I may be wrong on that one too.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, thanks as always for your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR commentator Ted Koppel joining us from his home in Maryland.

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