Former Military Official: U.S. Presence in Iraq Fuels Terrorism

Most influential national security voices have said it would be a mistake for the U.S. to get out of Iraq immediately. But retired Lt. Gen. William Odom says our presence in Iraq is fueling al Qaeda. Steve Inskeep talks to the onetime director of the National Security Agency.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been hearing different perspectives on ending the war in Iraq. Most influential national security voices have said the United States cannot afford to leave Iraq immediately--most but not all. And this morning we're going to explore what might happen if the United States chose to pull its troops out quickly, say within a few months. One former official who's been warning that US troops are counterproductive as long as they remain in Iraq is retired Lieutenant General William Odom. He's a former director of the National Security Agency, and he's in our studios.

Welcome to the program.

Lieutenant General WILLIAM ODOM (Retired): Thank you.

INSKEEP: Why do you think the US troops are being counterproductive in Iraq?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: We have to go back to the original reasons we gave for going into the war and understand that from a strategic viewpoint, it was not our interest to invade. People say, `Look, this is spilt milk. Let's move off from today.' But if you don't do that, you won't understand what the best options are today. It was in al-Qaeda's interest for us to invade because it made Iraq safe for al-Qaeda. It was in Iran's interest for us to invade Iraq because overthrowing Saddam is something they fought for eight years to do and failed. So once we crossed the boundary, we were doing the work of our enemies. We're sitting on this powder keg. By staying in there, we make this situation worse.

INSKEEP: Well, if you'll forgive me for extending your metaphor there, the milk is spilled.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And there is this potentially explosive situation...

Lt. Gen. ODOM: Right. And it...

INSKEEP: ...with different ethnic and religious groups at each other's throats. If US troops simply pulled out, wouldn't that lead to chaos?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: You'll have chaos no matter if we pull out now or pull out eight or 10 years from now. I think there will be some very positive things that'll happen if we pull out now. Al-Qaeda will be run out of the country. Al-Qaeda cannot operate in Kurdish territory now, but Shiites as well as the Iranians detest al-Qaeda. The Baathist Party detested al-Qaeda until we invaded, and they found them convenient partners in the insurgency. Staying in keeps us in there training these terrorists by giving them opportunities to attack us, learn how to do it and move back home, as the CIA has reported, to be sent to some other countries where they can do these sorts of things.

INSKEEP: Isn't it possible that terrorists could severely destabilize, even destroy an Iraqi state that is not that strong at this point?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: I don't think they're going to destabilize either the Sunnis or the Shiites. They have leaders waiting to take power here who are quite capable of terrorizing the local population to get rid of al-Qaeda operatives. They did it before for years. If you really wanted stability in Iraq, this may sound absurd but we could get stability in Iraq if we just re-installed Saddam. The choice for us has always been a Sunni Baathist secular tyranny that keeps the country together or a Shiite Islamic republic tyranny, and those are our real choices, whether we stay in 10 years or two years or six months.

INSKEEP: The White House has been pushing for another option, hoping to get a reasonably open, reasonably democratic, reasonably free society. Why is that not possible?

Lt. Gen. ODOM: It's not possible because we don't have examples in the world of countries where there's this kind of deep fragmentation, with no tradition of constitutional norms and limited government coming about in a short period of time. So that was a misguided goal when we went in, and it doesn't become more sensible because it's asserted with more vigor today.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on this. You are acknowledging in your argument that the rapid withdrawal of the US troops would allow chaos in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: It depends on how you define chaos. You can call it chaos because we have chaos there today. I'm not sure that there will be a lot more chaos if we leave than there is today. In fact, I would suspect that a lot of the car bombings and these things would decline reasonably soon because the Sunnis would not be willing to cooperate very much with al-Qaeda at this point in the game. They're going to be into militias vs. militias, as you've seen in Lebanon and other kinds of places.

INSKEEP: But you're saying let that happen; let it play out.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: We don't have an option. That's going to happen if we stay there another 10 years. We have caused things to move on a particular track that we cannot reverse. You know, and the first rule, if you're trying to get out of a hole, is to stop digging. We are digging vigorously if we pursue the strategy that the president just articulated.

INSKEEP: Retired Lieutenant General William Odom, thanks very much.

Lt. Gen. ODOM: OK.

INSKEEP: And during this series of conversations on ending the war, we also heard from the American in charge of training Iraqi troops, Iraq's national security adviser, a Defense secretary from the end of the Vietnam War. And you can hear all of those conversations and much more coverage by going to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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