Can Iraqis Handle Their Own Security?

The meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Obama is the first in Washington between the two men after U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities last month. Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, says the Iraqis have improved dramatically but they still need U.S. help to deter conventional attacks from their neighbors.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama at the White House today. The meeting comes three weeks after U.S. troops withdrew from towns and cities in Iraq under a negotiated security agreement between the two countries. After the meeting, President Obama said that despite continuing violence in Iraq, U.S. troops would withdraw from the country by 2011.

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, we're in the midst of a full transition to Iraqi responsibility and to a comprehensive partnership between the United States and Iraq based on mutual interests and mutual respect. The success of this transition is critically important to the security and prosperity of our people and it is a top priority of my administration.

SIEGEL: Speaking through an interpreter, Prime Minister Maliki said Iraqi troops have surpassed expectations.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through Translator) Those who thought that the Iraqi forces, if the American forces can leave, will be incapable of imposing peace and security, these people prove to be wrong.

SIEGEL: How well prepared are the Iraqis to deal with threats to their own security? Well we're going to ask John Nagl, who's now president of the Center for New American Security. He's a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, who specializes in counterinsurgency, and who's worked with the teams that train security forces in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. John Nagl welcome…

Dr. JOHN NAGL (President, The Center for New American Security): It's a pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: …to the program. A few years ago, Iraqi security forces were often described as undermined by corruption, sectarianism, indiscipline - today?

Dr. NAGL: I think that that is a fair characterization of where they were some years ago. They've improved dramatically. They are, broadly speaking, capable of securing themselves in the counterinsurgency fight in which they're engaged. They don't have all of the capabilities they need to do that. They certainly still need our help for deterring conventional attacks from some of their neighbors.

SIEGEL: Is the relationship between U.S. forces and Iraq under the Status of Forces Agreement, so called SOFA, is it actually working?

Dr. NAGL: We're going through some teething pains right now, I think it's safe to say. So on June 30th, the American forces changed the status under which they operate and were expected to withdraw from the city centers. The Iraqi's appreciated that very much. But the actual terms by, which that works - the questions of whether we have to get Iraqi permission to drive a convoy through an Iraqi city - some of that is still being worked out. And there is some tension, I think, and some confusion as we work through that process.

SIEGEL: Yes. Among the evidence of confusion was an email that The Washington Post reported from General Bolger, the commander of the U.S. Baghdad division, who said: Maybe something was lost in translation. We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied, dissembled or spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be.

Dr. NAGL: General Bolger is a great American, and I'm sure he's enormously pleased to have that email read on National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAGL: Bolger himself an author, a soldier-scholar and a great American, working very hard to protect his troops, to allow them to continue to help the Iraqis defend themselves and to build the Iraqi capability that, in the next couple of years, will allow us to withdraw completely. So, I feel his frustration. I understand his frustration. I do think this is something we're going to be able to work through.

SIEGEL: But in substance, do you think the Iraqi's oversold how far the Americans are going to go away from the cities, or did the U.S. understate what the withdrawal is?

Dr. NAGL: I absolutely think that Prime Minister Maliki is taking advantage of this opportunity to burnish his credentials as a nationalist, to demonstrate to his public - to his voting public - that he is the true liberator of Iraq. And that's unsurprising in a presidential election, but it is causing some wailing and gnashing of teeth among American forces.

SIEGEL: Are Iraqi forces sufficiently trained and improved to deal with any interference in their country by Iran - short of a conventional invasion, let's say?

Dr. NAGL: No. The short answer is no. The low end capabilities, the basic infantry skills the Iraqis have in abundance, and they have the technology -the systems they need to be effective in that role. They don't have all of the intelligence gathering assets they need to worry about low grade infiltration. They don't have all of some of the technical means we use to listen to other people talking with each other. They certainly don't have the air force…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Dr. NAGL: …that they would need to do some of the things that need to be done. So there's no doubt that Iraqi security continues to depend on American security forces to a pretty substantial extent.

SIEGEL: John Nagl, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. NAGL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who is now president of the think tank the Center For New Americans Security.

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