Experts Discuss Strategies For Iraq Withdrawal

In the next few weeks, Gen. David Petraeus will recommend whether or not to pull more American troops out of Iraq. Lawrence Korb, who helped lead the Pentagon during the Reagan administration, and retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped write the Army's latest counterinsurgency manual, discuss how many troops should leave and how fast.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Security is improving in Iraq and fewer people are dying. So, in the new few weeks General David Petraeus will recommend whether to pull out more American troops. Five brigades of about 5,000 troops each have left so far this year. They were the so-called surge troops. Exactly how do we get out and how fast?

That's been a prime topic on the campaign trail and now I'm joined by two people who spend a lot of time trying to answer those questions.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. And he helped write an analysis titled How to Redeploy. He joins us from Atlanta. Welcome, Mr. Korb.

Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): Nice to be with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Now, Mr. Korb sent his paper to our other guest, Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, and he doesn't quite agree with its recommendations. Colonel Nagl served in the Iraq War and helped write the army's latest counterinsurgency manual. He's with me in the studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (Retired Officer, United States Army): It's good to be here.

SEABROOK: Let's start with you, Mr. Korb. Your timeline for leaving Iraq?

Mr. KORB: I think once you set the date you should be out within 18 months. We did this study to show that you could do it in eight to ten months.

SEABROOK: And does that include all of the U.S. troops?

Mr. KORB: All troops should be out. Because as long as you leave any Americans there, you'll enhance the narrative of groups like al-Qaida that we are occupiers in a Muslim country.

SEABROOK: Colonel Nagl, eight to ten months. A little too fast?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Oh, I agree that it could be done, but I very strongly disagree that it should be done. I'm just back from ten days in Iraq. I got to go up north to Mogul, down south to Basra, a bunch of time in Baghdad and in the belts. Met with American political military leaders and with a whole bunch of Iraqi citizens.

And the unanimous opinion was that this is exactly what we should not do. That America has long-term interests in security and stability in Iraq; that those would be put at risk if we redeployed American forces too early. And the overriding opinion of the Iraqis I talked to was, yes, indeed, American troops should leave but not now and not particularly soon.

SEABROOK: Now, that doesn't quite square with what we're hearing publicly from the Iraqi government. That they would like the United States to leave.

Lt. Col. NAGL: We should all be amazed and astounded that a government is playing politics as an election approaches, whether that election is happening in the United States or Iraq.

SEABROOK: Mr. Korb?

Mr. KORB: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind it's not just Maliki that said this. A majority of the Iraqi parliament has signed a letter saying we need to set a withdrawal date. I think it's more than playing politics. In a sense it's responding to Iraqi public opinion. And there's no way that you're going to get a security arrangement approved by the Iraqi parliament unless you set a withdrawal date, nor will the Iraqi government do what they need to do to bring about reconciliation.

I mean, you just take the example of the latest so-called gain that they made. They were going to have provincial elections. They were supposed to take place in October. They're not going to take place in October. In fact, they'd be lucky if they take place next year. And they were able to postpone doing this because there's no threat of withdrawal.

So, once we set that date, not only will it galvanize Iraq internally but it'll give us a much better chance of getting the countries in the region to work with us, because Iraq's problems will not just be ours, they will be theirs.

SEABROOK: Colonel Nagl.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Iraq's problems are theirs now, Larry. And what we are doing is helping to solve those problems in Iraq. And the analogy I think of is we're providing sort of, like, damping rods in a nuclear reactor. We prevent the reactor from going critical. We're moderating and balancing between the Sunnis and the Shia, and we're allowing our reconciliation to emerge. Admittedly schway, schway(ph), slowly, slowly, as my Iraqi friends say, but we are in fact making progress.

We still have an American presence in Bosnia, some 15 years after the fighting there. The American forces increasingly stepping back, playing an advisory role. But the idea that Iraqi security forces can handle the threats there on their own is simply demonstrably untrue.

Maliki attempted to use Iraqi security forces on their own to clear Jai Schalmaddi(ph) out of Basra in March. That attack failed, was failing, and American advisers, American air power came in and were able to turn the tide. Similarly, American enablers played a critical role in clearing jam out of Sadr City.

SEABROOK: Jaish al-Mahdi is also known as the Mahdi Army.

Lt. Col. NAGL: That's correct.

SEABROOK: Controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Lt. Col. NAGL: It certainly was controlled by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It has been dealt some very serious blows.

Mr. KORB: Can I say…

SEABROOK: (unintelligible)…

Mr. KORB: …something? I think John laid a number of interesting points here in terms of the operation in Basra. The reason the Americans had to go in and bail out the Iraqi forces is a lot of them deserted because they did not want to fight against "Shia brethren." A lot of them also recognized that this operation by…

Lt. Col. NAGL: But, Larry, that points out that they can't handle the security situation on their own.

Mr. KORB: John I think it's a question of motivation rather than training. Because, after all, how much air power did Jaish al-Mahdi have? It's basically a question of motivation. A lot of them deserted, and they are doing that because you haven't had the reconciliation that you need. It has nothing to do with the amount of arms or the number of people. It really is a question of motivation.

Lt. Col. NAGL: No, necessarily. Of course, the history of counterinsurgency campaigns is very large forces cannot necessarily defeat small forces unless the security forces, the larger forces have the support of the population and execute counterinsurgency strategies effectively. And what we are doing now is training Iraqi security forces how to do that. We have literally translated the Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual into Arabic and we are literally teaching them how to do this.

But it took the American army five years to figure out how to conduct counterinsurgency effectively and we're starting building the Iraqi army from the ground up. This is going to be a multi-year effort. It is not purely a question in motivation and the idea that if Americans leave they will suddenly acquire an Iraqi national identity rather than what we've previously seen, and that is that they will separate into their tribal or sect identities and erupt again in a civil war is, I find, extraordinarily implausible and it's not supported by the history of Iraq or the history of counterinsurgency.

SEABROOK: So, Colonel Nagl, when do you get out of Iraq?

Lt. Col. NAGL: I believe that we'll be able to drawdown to - we'll roughly 140,000 troops in Iraq now. I can see us being at 50,000 to 70,000 in 2010 and at 35,000 in 2012.

SEABROOK: Okay. Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb. Thanks so much for joining me.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Thank you.

Mr. KORB: Thank you.

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