Monumental Year For U.S. National Security

With the end of the war in Iraq, the end of a skyrocketing defense budget and the end of Osama bin Laden, 2011 was a milestone year in the world of national security. To put it all into perspective, NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin speaks with host Audie Cornish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With the end of the war in Iraq, the end of a skyrocketing defense budget and the end of Osama bin Laden, 2011 was a milestone year in the world of national security. To put it all into perspective we've called on NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin and she joins me now here in the studio. Hi there, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, let's start with Iraq. The nearly nine-year war officially came to a close for the United States, and over the past week the last of the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops left Iraq. So, President Obama says it's time now to, quote, "normalize relations." What exactly does that mean?

MARTIN: Yeah, well, as you said, the president said he wants a relationship that's normal, akin to something the U.S. has with other allies in the region - Jordan or Kuwait. The problem is, Audie, Iraq is a fundamentally different animal than those countries. It's not normal right now, and the relationship with the U.S. is out of the ordinary, to say the least. U.S. troops, yes, they're gone but the U.S. is staffing up the biggest embassy in the world in Baghdad. The State Department is going to assume a huge role here, overseeing 15,000 U.S. employees - that includes security contractors. The CIA will still have a presence there and the Obama administration is really holding its breath to see if Iraq can hold it together. It's got a very fragile political system. Just this past week, we saw a wave of bombings in Baghdad. So, no, not quite normal yet.

CORNISH: OK. So, that's Iraq. I want to move on to the U.S. fight against al-Qaida. Now, obviously, the death of Osama bin Laden last spring was a major turning point in that effort, but where do things stand now?

MARTIN: No doubt, Audie, the death of bin Laden fundamentally changed this fight. The only person close to him in terms of his ability to motivate large-scale attacks on the West was a man named Anwar al-Awlaki, who had helped lead the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen. He was killed by a U.S. drone strike in September. The real concern now are these so-called lone wolves, these individuals motivated by the al-Qaida narrative who tried to wage smaller-scale attacks, but still potentially very deadly. And they're trying to wage them here in the U.S. This is where the U.S. military and intelligence communities are really focused right now, this kind of homegrown terrorism.

CORNISH: And, of course, speaking of the home front, back here in the United States, there's so much talk about the battle to cut the deficit has ended up forcing the Pentagon to look at its budget. What's been the result of that so far?

MARTIN: So far, really no changes yet. The Department of Defense has been asked to cut $450 billion from its budget, and there is the looming possibility that that number may double. But right now, the Pentagon is doing a whole lot of math trying to figure out exactly where to cut if they really have to. Two big areas that cost the most are equipment and people. And when we talk about people, it's the military benefits that are really sapping the Pentagon dry. But especially in wartime, it's really hard, as you might imagine, to make the case that you've got to cut pensions and raise health care premiums for U.S. troops. But if you don't cut that, you have to cut equipment and weapons programs. And a lot of those are job creators. And Congress right now is loath to cut into that part of the budget. So, it's a matter of choosing the least bad option; the Pentagon still trying to figure out what that is.

CORNISH: And finally, Rachel, I want to ask about the war that the United States is still actively fighting, and that's in Afghanistan. I understand there are roughly 90,000 U.S. troops still on the ground there and U.S. combat forces will remain. Let's look forward a bit. What happens now?

MARTIN: Well, the target date is 2014, Audie. That's when U.S. combat forces are supposed to be out of the country and Afghan national security forces are supposed to be ready to take over the fight. So, in 2012, they're going to be handing more control of operations over to Afghan troops and concentrating on the insurgent fight really on the eastern part of Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border. And that's been a troublesome area because of the proximity to Pakistan. We should point out it was just this last week that the Pentagon admitted some responsibility for an attack last month in which two dozen Pakistani troops were killed. But the U.S. said Pakistani troops fired on coalition forces first. This is a very complicated case and it illustrates the complexity of this war.

CORNISH: Rachel Martin is NPR's national security correspondent. Of course, not for much longer. Rachel will be filling in for me while I go to an election year assignment at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Rachel, we're excited to have you.

MARTIN: Audie, I'm looking forward to it. Thanks.

CORNISH: And thank you for speaking with us today.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

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