Op-Ed: Iraq Needs A Long-Term U.S. Presence

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August 2010 marks the end of combat operations in Iraq — and a shift for U.S. troops from a combat mission to one of support. But Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson says that stability in Iraq will require an ongoing American military presence, similar to the U.S. force in Korea, to contain Iran's influence.


And now for the Opinion Page.

Tomorrow night, President Obama speaks to the nation from the Oval Office on what the administration calls the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and the start of a new era where smaller numbers of American troops will train and support Iraqi forces.

Since the war started, we've checked in regularly with Gary Anderson to get his military perspective. He is a retired colonel of Marines who taught at the U.S. Army War College, and we've also asked about his experience about his year as a civilian member of a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq. Now in an op-ed for Small Wars Journal, he writes: I frankly see no good option other than a long-term American presence similar to the one we have maintained in Korea.

We'd like to hear from those of you served in Iraq. Have - are the government and security forces there ready? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also find a link to Gary Anderson's op-ed and join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Colonel Anderson's here with us in Studio 3. Nice to have you back with us.

Colonel GARY ANDERSON (Retired, U.S. Marine Corps): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Been a long time since you were here on the day the war started.

Col. ANDERSON: Yep, it sure is.

CONAN: It's - is the Korean analogy the apt analogy?

Col. ANDERSON: To the extent that, I think, a long-term stabilization presence in the country is good, I don't think we need nearly the number of troops that we've maintained in Korea since the end of the conflict there. I think today we - with our ability to count on air power and so forth to protect Iraqi integrity, we don't need a huge ground presence, but I think a continued military and diplomatic commitment to Iraq is certainly appropriate.

CONAN: In the case of South Korea, there was an imminent threat. Well, there's never been a peace agreement signed. North Korea was a - what's the threat for Iraq?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, I think, if you were talking to Iraqis, you'd be - they would tell you very, very frankly that it's Iran. Iraqis are deeply suspicious, both Sunni and Shia, of Iranian intensions. It's partially a nationalistic thing, partially a Persian-Arabic problem, but there is a deep wall of suspicion about Iranian intentions for the country itself.

CONAN: The Korean War ended in 1954. I think there are still, what, 15,000 U.S. troops there?

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah, I can't cite the exact figure, but it's a lot smaller than it was during the Cold War, but it's certainly still a reasonable amount of American presence there.

CONAN: You wrote in your op-ed: Although some on the political left have cried no more Koreas, our involvement on that peninsula ensured the growth of an economically healthy and democratic South Korea.

It was a long time before an economic - a democratic South Korea emerged.

Col. ANDERSON: Well, that's another good reason, I think, for keeping our hands in the Iraqi situation. It took - I think the fact that we had a large presence and a substantial presence helped them to get through some very difficult times, a couple of military coups, some fairly autocratic regimes and so forth. And I think we really have, by and large, done a pretty good job of helping them move toward a real democratic state.

CONAN: And the other question though is, is Iraq ready? At this point, there is elections, what, five months ago? They still haven't formed a government.

Col. ANDERSON: Well, that's - that is a real problem. And I, quite frankly, was never as sanguine about the elections as a lot of people in perhaps the embassy and maybe in the military leadership were simply - I think maybe because I had a tendency to be on the ground and talking to the Iraqis. And I don't think anybody ever want broke betting on the fecklessness of the Iranian or the Iraqi political elite.

CONAN: We're talking with retired Colonel Gary Anderson, as President Obama prepares to speak to the country tomorrow night from the Oval Office on Iraq. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Beth(ph), and Beth's with us from Charleston.

BETH (Caller): Yes. Hi there, Neal.


BETH: I'd like to ask the colonel his opinion about something. It's my concern that now that we have only 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq, that al-Qaida is spending most of their attention, you know, targeting the local Iraqi soldiers. And those, of course, are the ones that our remaining troops are training. And I guess you could say they're, like, embedded with the, you know, their counterparts in the Iraqi service. So does that make the 50,000 troops that remain, are they therefore more vulnerable because they seem to be targeting the Iraqi counterparts?

Col. ANDERSON: Beth, that's a really fair question. I think, by and large, that you'll find that force protection is a real concern for General Odierno and whoever succeeds him in the job. I'm not quite as concerned about force protection for American troops, but this is going to be a difficult time for the Iraqi military and their security forces simply because they are on their own. They're standing up, and we can only hope that they're - they - that we prepared them well enough to do the job in the future.

BETH: Yes, sir. Hopefully, they can really learn a lot from the remaining soldiers. And hopefully - unfortunately, there's not a - no osmosis is possible. But I'm just concerned, then, that they're going to be taking on the role of protecting, basically, or, you know, being the same as the 50,000 troops that are there and kind of acting as their protectors. And that was my question, sir.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Beth.

BETH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

BETH: Bye-bye.

CONAN: There's the question she asked about the Iraqi army, essentially, but there's also the police who have been, in the past - back in the bad, old days of the near civil war there - infected by a lot of sectarian forces.

Col. ANDERSON: That's always a concern. I think there's - there have been a lot of improvements. The - I can only speak for the northwest Baghdad and Abu Ghraib area, where I was. But I saw a great deal of improvement in the year that I was there. Now I've been gone since February, but I'm fairly confident that they're on an upward trajectory.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Dave, Dave with us from Miami.

DAVE (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

DAVE: I'm a long-time listener, first-time caller.

CONAN: Well, thank you.

DAVE: I served in Vietnam. That was my war. And I did a lot of the type of fighting that they have done recently in the area we are committed in - both areas that we are committed in now. I have been watching the situation very closely because I do have concern for my military. And I feel that when we look at the legislature that was elected sometime ago, and they have not formed a government a yet, I feel that the level of disintegration that is within that country, we would do well to get the hell out of there as fast as we can, because they don't want us there.

When we were in Korea, as we still are, we never heard people saying that we are the cause of the problem, as I have heard in reports from Baghdad over time. And it seems as if whatever goes wrong, we're the guys that's responsible, but we're really not going to be making any decisions. So I think the best thing to do is move out and go home.

CONAN: Colonel Anderson - just Dave, I do remember phases of anti-American demonstrations in Korean back in the '60s, and subsequent, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against U.S. forces. But, anyway...

Col. ANDERSON: Well, I think the problem you run in here - to here is, you know, one of complexity. But I'll be honest with you, I think after the amount of time we spent in Iraq, you're going to find that there are a lot of Iraqis who are really, really worried about us just totally up and leaving. You know, there's always going to be a certain amount of, you know, anti-foreign sentiment and so forth, but I - but I'll tell you, I heard an awful lot more in the way of we really wish you guys would stay around a little bit longer than I did get out of our country.

DAVE: Well, I understand what you're saying, and I don't mean that we should be preemptively about the exit. We've got to do it with decorum, obviously. But the point is we shouldn't be looking to prolong our presence in that particular environment, because we are dealing with a totally different mentality.

CONAN: Dave, the current agreement with the Iraqi government calls for all U.S. forces to be out by the end of next year, the end of 2011. Is that a timetable that seems to work?

DAVE: Sounds good to me.

CONAN: All right, Dave. Thanks very much.

DAVE: And thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go - by the way, the - I think there's a change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad tomorrow, and General Odierno is turning over to General Lloyd Austin III. He's...

Col. ANDERSON: That's what I understand, yes.

CONAN: ...the new man in charge. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Roland, Roland with us on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

ROLAND (Caller): Good morning, sir.

CONAN: Good morning to you - afternoon where we are, though.

ROLAND: Oh, yeah. Well, I was just calling to just comment on - I have some military notes that were from grandfather, who served in the Korean War. And, you know, if we plan on staying over there in, you know, the Middle East and Afghanistan, are we going to be needing to create our own military money like they did back then? And are we going to end up dividing the Afghan country into, you know, separate states that either want military presence from America, and that of, you know, the extremist Muslim community that just does not want us there to begin with?

CONAN: There's a lot different questions in there, Colonel Anderson, but his grandfather served in Korea. Is his grandson going to be serving in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, I think there's always a possibility that - I think it's more probable that we might see - we might rethink this thing to a point where we have a longer-term presence. But that doesn't necessarily mean a combat presence, nor does it mean, you know, an occupation. We're past the occupation stage. I think we're into a situation where American presence really is going to be a lot more low-key. And certainly, if we're going to be there for a long time, we're going to be trying to contribute to the economy, not be separate from it.

CONAN: Roland, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ROLAND: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with retired Colonel Gary Anderson today on the Opinion Page. There's a link at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION, link to his op-ed in the Small Wars Journal.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Daniel, Daniel with us from Sacramento.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

DANIEL: Great. I have a question for the colonel. Colonel, considering all these sectarian issues that we have in Iraq - you have the Turkmen, the Sunni, the Shia, and a small, you know, subgroups from that, Kurds and so forth - and then Turkey and other countries in region, which, obviously, have their opinions, how is the government in the future going to deal with this? And are we not going to simply train another leader like we did Saddam to sort of, you know, have an iron fist and rule with an iron fist? And is that the only option, to have almost, like, a warlord dictator in Iraq? Because, obviously, we can't - we have an election, and the people can't, you know, seem to get a cohesive government together. And I'm just curious if that's going to be the end goal, is that we're going to instill another sort of leader who is really kind of brutal.

CONAN: Daniel, you could say a lot of things about U.S. involvement with Saddam Hussein, but that we trained him is not accurate. But I think he is asking: Are we going to have - getting back to the South Korea analogy - another Syngman Rhee?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, let's hope not. But we won't rule out the possibility, but that's part of the argument that I make for having a longer term American presence. I think a lot of the political and economic and diplomatic pressure we put on to, you know, to push Korea into a democratic situation was as a result of our heavy involvement there. And I think that's a good argument for maintaining some kind of a presence there.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks - I'm sorry, were you saying something?

DANIEL: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, Daniel. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's go next to Mike, and Mike's with us from Destin in Florida.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm okay. How are you today?

MIKE: I'm not too bad. Not too bad. And also, good morning, colonel. How are you?

Col. ANDERSON: Fine, thank you.

MIKE: Just a quick question. Actually, the previous caller kind of asked the same question I had, but good thing I have a backup one. Pretty much, I just kind of wanted to know - and this is more of a policy, I guess, kind of question - is it seems like we're moving - since we're moving more towards wars against non-state kind of players, so it seems like we're actually going to have to engage in a kind of a counterinsurgency, those kind of guerilla-type of engagements.

Now, I know that the American public is used to always trying to have kind of a blitzkrieg kind of war, you know, just quick in-and-out, we're done, everybody come back home. But now it seems like the engagers are going to be much more protracted. As far as selling it to the people, do you see something, I guess, you know, in the future that we can actually use to make it more, I guess - I don't want to say appealing. That's not the right word, but at least kind of put it in the right perspective of saying, hey. You know what? We're going to be here for an X amount of years, and this is what's going to take.

Col. ANDERSON: Yeah, well, I think the - you know, the question's a good one. The situation, of course, is always dependent on casualties. You're going to have a lot of casualties going on. There's going to be a lot of tension. I think a long-term American presence of advisers and a, you know, a military infrastructure in the country to provide for defense against foreign involvement doesn't necessarily mean a heavy involvement. We - it's been years and years and years since we've ever had any major domestic problems with our involvement in Korea, or Japan, for that matter.

CONAN: Or Germany, yeah.

Col. ANDERSON: Or Germany.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. Mike, thanks very much for the phone call. You read - you wrote in your piece: No one in his right mind sets out to start a long and bloody war. Everybody envisions a short and glorious victory. Considering the odds, you conclude, we did not do as badly in Iraq as we could have. What did you mean by that?

Col. ANDERSON: Well, yeah, back in 2002, I did a study for the Marine Corps, when President Bush first - or second President Bush started to announce policy of preemption. And the results of the study were that in the 20th century, countries that actually started wars sort of, you know, for ostensibly preemptive reasons, the odds were not good. They're about 40 percent of success, although the successes, when they occurred, were spectacular. But when the war became protracted, almost every case resulted in regime change, you know, from the side that started the thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Col. ANDERSON: So, overall, I think, you know, basically, although the Bush administration ran its course, where - we haven't done all that bad as far as wrapping this one up.

CONAN: Again, there's a link to Gary Anderson's op-ed at our webpage. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks, as always, for your time.

Col. ANDERSON: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Tomorrow, from Ground Zero to the Lincoln Memorial, we'll talk about the meaning of sacred secular space. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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