U.S. Mission in Iraq Likely to Change
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
NPR's Ted Koppel has been listening with us and has some analysis.
Good morning, Ted.
TED KOPPEL: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about the politics of this report and some others. If Iraq's military and police forces, as we just heard, aren't ready in many respects, does that become an argument for Americans to stay in Iraq or an argument to go?
KOPPEL: It's both. But I think if you look closely at what's being said up on the Hill right now, that essentially, congressional Republicans and Democrats have reached, if not a deal, an accommodation. They understand that there is, effectively speaking, no way of getting all the troops out soon. And I think what we're looking at, Steve, is a significant number of U.S. forces in Iraq for some years to come.
INSKEEP: But wait a minute, because there's this report coming up in a few days from General David Petraeus. It was seen at one time as a possible moment when the work could be extended or curtailed. You're saying that decision has already been made, the war is going to go on?
KOPPEL: I'm saying that, practically speaking, even the Democratic candidates have acknowledge that it would take a minimum - I think John Edwards was saying it would take nine months to get all the troops out. The others, people like Hillary Clinton and most especially Senator Joe Biden, are saying it's going to take longer than that. I think what you're going to see, Steve, is that by end of this year, the beginning of next year, there will begin to be a very minuscule withdrawal, maybe 5,000 a month for a few months, until we get back down to the number at which we were when we first invaded Iraq. Back down to about 130,000. And...
INSKEEP: Let's get a sense of what you're talking about with some of these Democratic presidential candidates. We've got some tape here of Hillary Clinton speaking at last month's Democratic presidential debate in Iowa.
(Soundbite of Democratic Presidential Debate recording)
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): This is going to be very dangerous and very difficult. A lot of people don't like to hear that but if you look at how we would have to take our troops out, plus the equipment which we would not want to leave, plus what we do with people in the Green Zone, plus what we do with the Iraqis who sided with us - thousands of them - plus what we do with the more than a hundred thousand American contractors who are there, this is a massive, complicated undertaking.
INSKEEP: Is this the Democratic line then, Ted Koppel? They're not saying that they like the war that they want to continue the war but that there's no choice?
KOPPEL: I think they're coming to realize that by the time - if they win the election - by the time they take over the troops are still going to be there and then it's going to be their war. And remember we just heard General Jones saying that what the Iraqis are not capable of going right now is protecting their own borders. It is not in the U.S. interest that Iran, which is now the becoming the regional superpower in the Persian Gulf, that Iran has free access to Iraq. I think you're just going to see anywhere from 75 to 100,000 U.S. troops there for years to come.
INSKEEP: So, if you're talking about a moderate withdrawal in the coming months; is there any other significant change in strategy that's on the horizon here for the troops that remain?
KOPPEL: Yes, I think that's the part of it that the Democrats feel that they can live with. And that is that the mission is going to change. I think that the president will, A, throw a bone to the Democrats by saying we're going to start pulling troops out at the rate of perhaps 5,000 a month by December; and the other thing is that the mission is going to change so that U.S. troops will be more and more taken out of harms way, where they will go to some of the major bases that have been established in Iraq and they will be engaged - as General Jones was suggesting, they're going to have to be - in training the Iraqis to take over as much of the mission as they can. But that new mission - let me repeat again - I think is one that's going to take years.
INSKEEP: And this is something that we've already seen British forces do outside of Basra this very week. Even though the situation wasn't perfect in Basra, they moved out of the city and put themselves on a base outside town.
KOPPEL: Precisely. And all the emphasis was on the British withdrawal from Basra - the British withdrawal from Basra. They withdrew about 15 to 20 miles outside Basra. They're still there.
INSKEEP: NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel. Thanks very much.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Steve.