Iraq Study Group Expected to Suggest Drawdown

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group allegedly plans to recommend a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq when it presents its report to President Bush next week. Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks talks with Mike Pesca about the recommendations that could come from the panel.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group are officially due to come out next week. That's the bipartisan task force to which Eric Westervelt just referred. Thomas Ricks, military reporter for the Washington Post, wrote about one of the group's proposals in today's paper.

Hello, Tom.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Washington Post): Hi.

PESCA: The headline here is a recommended troop drawdown. Literally the headline in your paper was, Study Group to call for Pullback. What details can you fill us in about that?

Mr. RICKS: Essentially what they're talking about - and this is a core recommendation - is drawing down the U.S. combat force in Iraq and placing much more emphasis on the training and advisory effort that stands up Iraqi forces.

Now, I think this is meant to satisfy both the Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats get some withdrawal out of that while the Republicans and the White House get the sense that we're not just leaving Iraq, that we're trying one more time, taking one last best shot.

PESCA: But what neither side gets is a timetable. That's not part of the recommendations.

Mr. RICKS: The great risk of drawing down U.S. forces of any type in Iraq is that they're really the only thing that people think is keeping a lid on the low-level civil war you have there now. So if you start drawing them down, it's going to be very interesting to see whether militias and death squads take advantage of the absence of U.S. forces to become even more violent and abusive.

PESCA: The criticism of a pullout includes the argument that the very announcement of a pullout will embolden the U.S.'s enemies. Does the panel's recommendations address that argument at all?

Mr. RICKS: I suspect they are, because I was told that there are a lot of conditions and hedges attached to this whole plan they're recommending. I think it tries to avoid setting off a full-blown civil war. But I think the panel also recognizes that essentially Iraq is a tragedy at this point. There are no good answers left. The question is, what's the least bad answer?

PESCA: As far as the fact that there is no timetable, the president has always rejected a timetable and it does make me wonder if the organizing principle of this group was to only recommend things within the administration's comfort zone. There's always that tension between what could realistically be adopted on the one hand, but on the other hand you don't want to be so cautious as to fall short of offering what you think is the best solution.

Mr. RICKS: I think that's exactly right. I think this is a panel put together not with an eye to Middle Eastern politics. There are no, say, Arab specialists on the group. What there are is a bunch of people who understand the intersection of politics and policy. You've got several former White House chiefs of staff who work exactly at that intersection.

So what they're trying to do is come up with something, yes, that the White House can live with, but also that will somehow pull together the support of a majority of the members of Congress. So I think what they're trying to do is pull in not all the Democrats but a significant chunk of the Democrats, and pull in most of the Republicans, and that gives you a majority.

If you have the majority, they can look at the White House and say, look, the Congress as a body is behind this, so you know, what are you guys going to do in the White House? And I think that pulls on the White House.

I think you're right, though. I think the danger for this recommendation is that many Democrats will say this is simply a variation of stay the course, and we don't like it; we want to get out of Iraq.

PESCA: Finally, Tom, in your book, "Fiasco," you make recommendations, everything from troop withdrawal to challenging the manner in which the Pentagon deploys its forces. You were interviewed by this group. What's your reaction to how the Iraq Study Group has initially tried to tackle the issue?

Mr. RICKS: I think they're trying to do so in a very serious way. When I appeared before them, I was struck really not just the bipartisan nature of the group but the nonpartisan nature of the group. You couldn't tell from their questions where they were going. They really were just, I think, asking for information, you know, saying why did you say this in the book, and what was the reaction of military officers to that part of your book?

PESCA: That's Thomas Ricks, military reporter for the Washington Post, also the author of "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." Thanks, Tom.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

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Details Emerge from Iraq Study Group Discussions

James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group. i i

James Baker (left) and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, during a September news conference. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group.

James Baker (left) and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, during a September news conference.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Details of the Iraq Study Group's upcoming report are beginning to show up in the media. They point to a compromise recommendation calling for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq — with no specific timetable.

Escalating violence in Iraq and the midterm election results have helped to focus more attention on the group of five Democrats and five Republicans, charged with reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq.

The bipartisan panel was formed last April by four Washington think tanks and funded with $1 million from Congress.

Jackie Northam, NPR's national security correspondent, says the big questions the panel had to address were how and when U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq.

Michael Vickers, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, tells Northam that reducing combat troops would represent a fundamental shift in strategy.

"It would be a transition to an Iraqi-centric approach to security, with Americans in support rather than an American-centric approach in the primary combat role," Vickers says. "So the overall force may only be reduced by half, but the orientation of the force, more as advisors and trainers accompanying Iraqis on the front lines would be a major shift in orientation."

Northam says the Iraq Study Group will reportedly not specify where the U.S. combat forces would be shifted — whether back home, to a nearby country or elsewhere in Iraq. Pentagon officials have already starting planning to move several thousand more troops into Baghdad. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales says this is a smart move militarily.

"The main thing in this war is security inside the city limits of Baghdad," Scales says. "Whoever owns the security situation in Baghdad at the end of the day, is the one who is going to own the political situation there."

Scales says the Iraq Study Group also appears to be suggesting something he and others have recommended for years — moving the mission from a close combat operation to more of a support and training function.

"These types of insurgencies, religious and tribal in nature, tend to burn themselves out. The purpose of the American presence now is to lessen the bloodletting and to put Iraqi boots on the ground so they can pick up this mission," Scales says.

The co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group are former Secretary of State James Baker III, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. Hamilton says the panel will release its final report on Dec. 6.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says both men understand the complexity of the situation in Iraq and are trying to tamp down expectations for the report.

"The political dynamics often inside the U.S. are to find some simple solution, some silver bullet," Cordesman says. "Choose that as an alternative to what you're doing now and somehow it's going to solve everything. Well, as Secretary Baker and Congressman Hamilton have said, there are no silver bullets. And this is the only message they've very clearly given to date."

President Bush has said he is willing to listen to any ideas for Iraq. In addition to the Iraq Study Group, he will soon be receiving reports from his own staff, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency.

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