Leaked Memo Says Iraq Is Ready For Pullout

Under the current agreement with Iraq's government, the last U.S. forces will leave the country in December 2011. But in an extraordinary memo that was leaked To the New York Times, a senior U.S. military adviser in Baghdad says it's time to declare victory now and get out of Iraq by next year. Host Liane Hansen speaks to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, about the memo.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Under the current agreement with Iraq's government, the last U.S. forces will leave the country in December 2011. But in an extraordinary memo that was leaked to The New York Times, a senior U.S. military advisor in Baghdad says it's time to declare victory now and get out of Iraq by next year.

The memo was written by Colonel Timothy Reese, and he pulls no punches in his assessment of Iraq's military and its government. He says laziness is endemic in the Iraqi security forces and corruption among officers is widespread.

Nevertheless, Colonel Reese writes that the Iraqi military is good enough to keep the government from being overthrown and that the United States has achieved our objectives in Iraq.

Stephen Biddle is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former advisor to General David Petraeus. He joins us by phone from Pennsylvania. Thanks for your time.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: First, the timetable: Colonel Reese says the U.S. military presence in Iraq should end by August 2010. You've argued that even the December 2011 deadline to withdraw all the U.S. troops from Iraq may be too hasty. What's the basis of your argument?

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I think this is all a function of what you think the purpose of U.S. forces in Iraq really is. If you take the primary role we're serving in Iraq is to train the Iraqi military in a way that could enable them to prevent insurgents from overturning the government, then perhaps Reese is right and we've reached a knee in a curve and done as much as we can.

I actually don't think that's the primary mission that U.S. forces perform in Iraq today. I think our primary role in Iraq is actually to provide peacekeeping stability enhancement functions, not unlike the role the outside functions played in the Balkans after the resolution of the ethnic civil wars there.

Iraq, in some ways like the Balkans, was a very intense, ethno-sectarian civil war of identity, which then got largely resolved through a series of negotiated stand-downs over the course of the second half of 2007. In settings like this, you cannot reasonably expect that people who were killing each other in large numbers and deathly frightened of one another will simply become tolerant of each other overnight, or even within two years of the most intense phase of the ethno-sectarian conflict.

In settings like this, you very often need outside forces to play a stabilizing role to prevent the internal conflicts from reigniting. The primary function that our troops serve is to reassure former internal combatants within Iraq that they're not going to be exploited by their erstwhile rivals.

HANSEN: But what's your view on how the Iraqis feel about the continuing presence of U.S. troops? Because Colonel Reese in his memo argues that staying beyond 2010 will only sow, what he calls, further resentment toward Americans.

Mr. BIDDLE: Outside peacekeepers are often resented. Nonetheless, outside peacekeepers are often tolerated even if they aren't loved, because they have the benefit of maintaining security and keeping former conflicts from reigniting. And I think in Iraq today, similarly, our presence is disliked but tolerated and, regrettably, continues to perform an important function in keeping the conflict from returning.

HANSEN: Colonel Reese's memo includes a long list of criticisms as he assesses Iraq's government and its military. Among them are an inability to instill discipline and to stop nepotism and cronyism in the military. Are those, in your opinion, assessments accurate?

Mr. BIDDLE: I think they're accurate. The issue is how severe do you think they are. It's a question of degree rather than kind. The Iraqi military does much less of all those things than it did previously. As far as Reese's net assessment of their military capacity is concern, it's worth emphasizing that he thinks that Iraqi security forces in military terms are capable of besting(ph) the remaining insurgents within the country.

So, I think the more important question, though, is: Will the Sunni and Kurdish communities within Iraq trust a Shiite government sitting on top of a 600,000-person security force to respect their interests or not? If the answer to that is perhaps no, then whether the Iraqi security forces are nepotistic or whether they're lazy or whether they're energetic or whether they're trained is secondary to the real problem. Which is: Are former internal rivals within the country willing to trust them or not? And that, I think, is the real challenge.

HANSEN: Stephen Biddle is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and we reached him by phone in Pennsylvania. Thank you for your time.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thank you.

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