Obama Eases Deadline For Pulling Combat Troops

In his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Obama said he soon would announce a way to responsibly end the war in Iraq. He said he wants to pull out all U.S. combat forces from that country in 19 months.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Another big issue on President Obama's agenda is a plan to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Throughout his campaign, the president said he intended to withdrawal combat troops within about 16 months of taking office. Apparently, that timetable has now slipped a bit. NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman is covering the story. He joins us now. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is the plan now?

BOWMAN: Well Steve, the new plan is to pull out all American combat troops in 19 months. The president's giving this a little more time because military leaders are wary of pulling combat forces out too fast. They say security is better there, but it's still fragile. And also, they want to keep larger numbers of American forces in Iraq for the country's presidential election in December, just to make sure everything goes smoothly.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand this distinction. We're talk about withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq. That doesn't mean all troops, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. They're looking at keeping anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq, and they could remain for many years as - it's a sizeable number - and they'll continue to go after al-Qaida elements, train Iraqi forces, and protect diplomats, aide workers, and so forth.

INSKEEP: Now Tom Bowman, as you know from listening to American military commanders, there's a sense among some military officers that 16 months, or even 19 months, might be too quick. You have to be governed by the situation on the ground and we could be just in the middle of a very, very long conflict. Is the military comfortable with this slightly stretched out time table?

BOWMAN: I think some might grumbling a bit. But I think overall, they can live with this, and... Of course, if conditions get worse in Iraq, the president could extend these combat forces beyond the 19 months. But again, if you're going to have as many as 50,000 American forces remain there, you know, you might not call them combat troops, you might can - might call them trainers, the bottom line is they're still soldiers and marines with guns.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask another question then. Is this drawdown in Iraq going to happen quickly enough to really allow - realistically allow a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which the president also wants?

BOWMAN: No, I think so. And NPR's also learned that the Pentagon's planning on sending 900 additional special operations forces to Afghanistan. Now these are Green Berets, Navy Seals, Marine Special Operations Forces. Their training now and will start heading to Afghanistan soon, and then that flow will continue into the summer. They'll be part of the training effort over there. They'll work with Afghan commandos. They'll train, mentor, fight with them - and with a special eye towards protecting those who live out in the hinterlands, out in the small villages that don't have a lot of troop presence out there and have been susceptible to Taliban attacks...

INSKEEP: Okay. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: Okay. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman giving us the latest update on President Obama's plans for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR NEWS.

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