President Obama Visits Pentagon For First Time
ALEX COHEN, host:
Regardless of the elections, the situation in Iraq depends on what happens here in the United States. President Obama paid his first visit to the Pentagon yesterday. Part of the discussion centered on when troops will come home from Iraq.
President BARACK OBAMA: We're going to have some difficult decisions that we're going to have to make surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, most immediately.
COHEN: During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to immediately order the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by May of next year. NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman is here now. And Tom, what did President Obama say yesterday about that campaign promise?
TOM BOWMAN: You know, he really didn't say much, and that's one of the difficult decisions he's going to have to make in the coming weeks and months. What we do know the Pentagon is looking at a plan to withdraw combat troops in 16 months, together with other plans that would withdraw troops not as quickly as that, in a slower, slower fashion.
COHEN: And what are the military advisers there at the Pentagon telling him?
BOWMAN: Well, yesterday, they had what were called - it's sort of almost an academic discussion about the challenges in the world. They talked a lot about extremism and how to combat it. They talked about the stress on the force and about how to meet the challenges abroad, but no real specifics yesterday.
COHEN: So there aren't specific plans to put more troops into Afghanistan?
BOWMAN: Well, there are specific plans. There's been no sign off on it yet by either Defense Secretary Gates or the president. What we believe will happen fairly soon is you'll see thousands more Marines heading into Afghanistan by the spring. Six thousand or more is what we're hearing.
COHEN: And we also learned today that Afghanistan is scheduling elections for August. Now, will that factor into the U.S. troop level?
BOWMAN: Well, the big reason for sending more U.S. troops there is the resurgent Taliban. There are some parts of the country where the Taliban is really in control. So the increase in troops has more to do with going after the Taliban than the elections. But clearly, the Taliban would target polling places, and voters, and so forth. So any troops you do send over in the spring and summer would clearly be important to those elections scheduled for August.
COHEN: And meanwhile, there's a lot of push back from Pakistan about drone flights and attacks in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Did President Obama say anything about that?
BOWMAN: We got no indication he talked specifically about Pakistan and the Predator attacks yesterday, but there's no question that Pakistan is concerned about it. But we're also told that one of the reasons these Predator strikes are being more successful is that Pakistan is actually offering more intelligence information to the Americans so they can better pinpoint these strikes with Predator drones.
One problem, of course, is that a lot of times, these people you're attacking, they're with their families or other families in compounds. Civilians get killed in these strikes as well, along with some of these people you're targeting. So that's one of the reasons Pakistan is very concerned about it.
COHEN: And Tom, the Army is announcing today new figures on suicides among its troops, and what are those figures?
BOWMAN: Well, they're looking at 128 active duty soldiers who killed themselves in 2008, and that number could go even higher because 12 cases are still under investigation as possible suicides. Now, those numbers are larger than 2007, where 115 active duty soldiers killed themselves. And Army officials say that one of the big reasons for the increase in suicides over the past number of years is failed relationships, and a lot of those relationships are under stress because of repeated and long deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
COHEN: NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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