President Considers Increasing Iraq Troop Levels

Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, makes his first official visit to Iraq on the same day that a story in The Washington Post says President Bush is considering adding troops to the fight in Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Days after starting his job, Robert Gates is visiting the country that will likely define the job. The new defense secretary is in Iraq. He is expected to meet with the American commanders who will now be giving him advice and also following his instructions. Mr. Gates arrives at a moment of change for the U.S. military, and NPR's Guy Raz is tracking those changes.

Guy, good morning.

GUY RAZ: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I assume this visit to Iraq is going to be more than the usual morale boosting and visiting the troops and that sort of thing.

RAZ: Absolutely, Steve. He's looking to sound out the top ground commanders on everything from, you know, basic questions of whether they have enough troops to overall strategic issues. Right now, the main strategy - the main mission - for U.S. forces in Iraq is about the word transition - essentially, how to transition security responsibility to Iraqi forces. And a lot of people think that is simply not working fast enough, so Gates is going there to find out whether these top commanders agree with that idea.

And he's going to take it all in. He's going to travel around the country, absorb as much as he can. It's his first trip, obviously, as secretary - his second trip to Iraq, as he did go there as a member of the Iraq Study Group. But he's going to take all that with him, go back to the White House, and deliver his assessment - his verdict, essentially - to the president.

INSKEEP: Now there's a couple of issues involving troop numbers that we want to sort out here. There's talk of expanding the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, complaints that there aren't enough U.S. troops to do that, and also talk of expanding the Army. What's going on?

RAZ: Well, it's interesting. In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, President Bush essentially announced that he is prepared and planning to expand the armed forces. He's talking specifically about the Marines and the Army - ground combat troops. This is, in a sense, a turnabout, because the Bush administration up until this point was talking about lighter, leaner, quicker, more mobile military forces.

They're now talking about expanding the Army permanently. This is not related to any kind of temporary surge in Iraq. It's only marginally related. Because even if there is an expansion, it's going to take years, perhaps a decade, to get the Army up to, say, an additional 70 to 100,000 troops - the kind of numbers that the Army's asking for. So we're not going to see an impact very quickly in Iraq on this.

INSKEEP: So if that's the long-term response, what are the short-term options for the president as he considers whether to change course. And if so, how?

RAZ: Well, he's looking at two very different possibilities. One, obviously, is this notion of a surge - temporarily sending in as many as 30, 35,000 troops into Iraq, most of them into Baghdad - shifting the entire mission from transition to Iraqi security to population security; the idea that that will ultimately quash and affect the counterinsurgency.

INSKEEP: Population security. What does that mean?

RAZ: Well, that basically means what it says - securing the population in Iraq. And right now, U.S. forces are not focused on that. They're focused on trying to help the Iraqi forces take over and deal with the issue of securing the population. Because - the theory goes - because the population isn't secure, it allows the counterinsurgency - it allows the insurgency, rather, to expand.

INSKEEP: And now very briefly, Guy Raz, even as all of these changes are being discussed, there's talk of a change in command in the Middle East. What might be happening here?

RAZ: Well, the commander of CENTCOM, or Central Command - General John Abizaid, who's been in the job for three years - is expected to step down. The L.A. Times is reporting he's going to step down in March. We know that he was planning to step down. His retirement is imminent. He's been on the job for a long time, and he has publicly opposed the idea of surging troops - of expanding the number of forces in Iraq - which could put him at odds with the White House if the White House decides to do that.

INSKEEP: But now it's an opportunity for Robert Gates, the man who's in Baghdad now, to pick his own man.

RAZ: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: NPR's Guy Raz.

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