Obama To Meet Joint Chiefs Of Staff At Pentagon

President Obama is expected to make his first trip to the Pentagon this week to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The visit follows the president's meetings last week with his top national security advisers on Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has said he wants to draw down forces in Iraq and then increase them in Afghanistan.

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. This week President Obama is expected to make his first trip to the Pentagon to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior military leaders for all the services. The visit follows the president's meetings last week with his top national security advisers on Iraq and Afghanistan, the two wars he inherited. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the national security agenda this week. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: The president's made it clear he wants to draw down forces in Iraq and then increase them in Afghanistan. Are we expecting any more details about troop levels this week?

BOWMAN: You know, we could hear something this week. General Jim Conway - he's the top Marine officer - told reporters Friday that President Obama would go to the Pentagon sometime this week, talk to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And what we're hearing is we could get an announcement of six thousand or more Marines for Afghanistan. That's three times the number they have there now. And they could be heading there as early as the spring.

And what we do know is they'll be sent to the southern part of the country where the Taliban is quite strong. Now, in Iraq, at the end of this week we're going to have provincial elections there. And then maybe sometime after the elections, maybe a month or so, we could have an announcement of troop reductions in Iraq, both Marine and Army units.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama has said that he wants all combat troops out in 16 months - out of Iraq. So is this the beginning of that?

BOWMAN: Well, President Obama has said that repeatedly - he would like all combat troops out in 16 months. He said that often during the campaign. But he also said he'd listen to commanders on the ground. And they're going to be much more cautious. They're afraid violence will increase again if troops move out too fast. So we're going to have that tug between what the president wants and what commanders feel comfortable with. And I'm told there's really no plan to reduce troops outside maybe an Army brigade and a couple of Marine battalions sometime after that provincial election.

WERTHEIMER: What about Afghanistan? What about beefing up there?

BOWMAN: Well, clearly, again we're going to see troop increases in Afghanistan. This is sort of just the beginning now. And they have about 32,000 troops there now. We're going to see a lot more troops over the coming year. And it's not just troops there. It's really the strategy - what strategy is correct for Afghanistan, what's the right path ahead. There are three separate reviews going on now, and they all seem to agree on one thing, that creating a stable democracy there is going to take many years. And perhaps the U.S. was too optimistic, even too unrealistic, about how quickly that could be done. And here's Defense Secretary Gates talking about this just last week.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaeda, preventing the re-establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.

BOWMAN: Yeah, those concrete things include dealing with corruption in the Afghan government, building up the army. And the delivery of services Gates talks about, the Taliban has created sort of shadow governments in many parts of the country providing those services and even their own court system.

WERTHEIMER: So the troop increases for Afghanistan could be just the very beginning of a new deeper U.S. commitment.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. Again, about 32,000 troops there now, American troops. We could see that more than double over the next year.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

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