NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, and an unusual contribution this week: a paper on the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq that's published on the Web page of the Center for American Security. Some of the authors of that organization's previous papers now work at the Pentagon.

This one is coauthored by John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who's credited as the principal contributor for the Army Manual on Counterinsurgency. He's now president of the Center for a New American Security. And this paper comes out as U.S. troops pull out of Iraq's urban areas. The deadline is tomorrow.

And while a lot of attention focuses on the endgame in Iraq, John Nagl argues we need to look further down the road to U.S. interests on terrorism, oil, democracy, the balance of power among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, how to balance the influence of Iran, can we meet the deadline for complete withdrawal, and how much can the U.S. - or how much can or will the U.S. invest in the future of Iraq?

So we're asking you to think long-term, too. What do you want the U.S. relationship with Iraq to be in the long-term? 800-9898-255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Colonel Nagl joins us by phone. Nice to have you with us today. John Nagl, are you there?

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army, Retired; President, Center for a New American Security): I am.

CONAN: Ah, there you are. All right. Nice to have you with us today. Appreciate it.

Lt. Col. NAGL: It's a great pleasure.

CONAN: And I guess the greatest fear that many people have is the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by midnight tomorrow and then later from Iraq, entire. We'll leave the place free to resume the civil war that started in 2006.

Lt. Col. NAGL: And I think that they are right to be concerned, although the situation on the ground has changed so dramatically that I think perhaps that's not an immediately likely consequence.

CONAN: Another concern that a lot of people have is that Iraq, absent American forces, is now ripe for either a military coup or a new strongman to emerge.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, we have a bit of a strongman emerging, in fact. Prime Minister Maliki is certainly feeling his oats. It's ironic to remember now that two years ago, we were concerned that he was too weak. Increasingly, people in Iraq and some observers in the United States now fear that he is consolidating too much power.

But it's important, I think, not to panic about this. There remain well over 100,000 troops in Iraq tomorrow, as there are today. There will continue to be a substantial American presence in Iraq, at least through December 2011. And I'm willing to bet that there is going to be a substantial American presence after that time, as well.

CONAN: Indeed, you write in this paper that in part, due to the results of the financial difficulties suffered in Iraq - the price of oil has gone down quite a bit in the past year - that they're going to be unable to mount the kind of - particularly air force and naval forces. And U.S. forces are going to have to contribute that part of Iraq security for some time to come.

Lt. Col. NAGL: And that's certainly very true, but it would be true even had the economic crisis not occurred. It quite simply takes longer than the amount of time available for any country, including Iraq, to build a capable, jet-equipped air force as Iraq is going to need to maintain sovereignty over its own territory.

So the security situation, the economic situation, the shared interest between the United States and Iraq, in my eyes, make it very likely that there will be a continued American security presence in Iraq for some years to come. And I think that's in our interest, as well in Iraq's interest.

CONAN: And does that mean American bases inside Iraq?

Lt. Col. NAGL: I think it does. Certainly, there will be American bases in Iraq under the current Status of Forces Agreement until December 2011. It's my sense that even after that time, the Iraqis will - the Iraqi government in - sometime in 2011 will recognize that it is not going to be able to control its own territory, secure its own people without external assistance. And it's going to ask the United States to remain in some military bases, probably far outside the cities and the deserts, in particular to provide air cover for an increasingly capable Iraq ground force, but an Iraqi air force that isn't going to be ready on its own by then.

CONAN: There are other capabilities that Iraqi forces have yet to master and - or develop, including lots of logistics and intelligence.

Lt. Col. NAGL: That is absolutely correct. And some of those skills they're working on, some of those skills will take - will also take longer than 2011. Some of those skills, they may never have. Certainly, some of the high-end technological systems we use to provide intelligence on internal and external threats to Iraq, we're likely to maintain under our control for some time to come. And it strikes me that the Iraqi government will continue to want access to that information, and it will be in our interest to provide that to them. But that will also require some very small number of Americans on the ground to do that.

CONAN: And when you say it's in our interest to provide that information to them, does that suggests we are going to be paying for these air forces, naval forces, intelligence and whatnot?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Certainly, we will be paying for the American forces that are resident in Iraq. It's possible that we'll negotiate some sort of burden-sharing agreement as we currently have with Germany, for instance, with Japan, where those countries bear some of the cost for American forces stationed on their territory that provide security to them, but that we also believe it's in our interests.

But - important to note that, for instance, the Iraqi Air Force is currently negotiating to buy F-16 fighter planes from the United States, and they wish to buy them with their own money. And with that purchase comes a long-term support agreement, not just for spare parts, but also for technicians to help with some of the more sophisticated aspects of aircraft maintenance. So there's a long-term economic relationship, I think, that is going to flow between the United States and Iraq, not just in the oil field, but also in the security field.

CONAN: Getting back to the future of Iraq, as it stands, some people fear that, again, absent a strong American presence - and the U.S. presence will diminish considerably, no matter what happens - that the Iraqi government in Baghdad may become pretty much a puppet of Iran.

Lt. Col. NAGL: That, I think, is not a concern that is likely to see fruition. I was in Iraq most recently in August of last year and got to travel down south to Basra. I was astounded by the devastation. Much of that devastation - the damage done to Basra - actually dates back to the Iran-Iraq War that consumed most of the 1980s. Almost every family in the south of Iraq lost family members to that long war with Iran, and there's some real antipathy between the Iranians and the Iraqi people.

Although Iran would like to exert more control over Iraq, over the government of Iraq and its policies, the political parties in Iraq most closely affiliated with Iran actually lost ground substantially in the last elections, and it doesn't look like they're going to do any better in the next one.

So I'm reasonably confident that Iran will not gain much more influence over Iraq as long as the United States remains committed to the security of Iraq. And I think that's one of the best reasons for us to continue to remain engaged, to keep Iran from getting any stronger than it already is.

CONAN: Our guest is John Nagl, who's the president of the Center for a New American Security. His report "After the Fire: Shaping the U.S. Relationship with Iraq," you can find a link to it on our Web site. That's at npr.org. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go to Ed. Ed's calling from Berkeley.

ED (Caller): Hi. Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning.

ED: You know, my advice is that the United States should just get out of Iraq ASAP, just treat it like any other sovereign country. After killing over a million Iraqis, what kind of relationship are you asking for? There's also a wise saying, which say: You cannot occupy in our country. It doesn't work. It doesn't work.

We have to hold the new conservatives responsible for the damage that they have - not that they have done to Iraq, but the whole world, especially the United States, especially the U.S. economy bankrupted by them.

So I would say, get out, get out there. Get out as soon as you can. You won't do any good. You're only recruiting more terrible terrorists, or, you know, people that attack the U.S. or whatever he calls them - bin Laden and his like - which actually have been the best used by the new conservative to rule the Iraq war against (unintelligible), and also recommend that Obama should stop this nonsense with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and also get out of there. It just will not work. It's just will not work.

Just get out and treat it like any other sovereign country that he can deal with. The fate of the Iraq is in the hand of the Iraqis, the fate of the Afghanistan is in the hand of Afghanistanis(ph). And that is the best we can do now. We have to take care of this country, the United States is in very poor shape, and we have to take care of it first and for all.

CONAN: I think John Nagl, your report, which I've read, I think acknowledges a lot of the points that Ed makes, certainly among them that Iraqis are very much in favor of the U.S. withdrawal.

Lt. Col. NAGL: The Iraqi population at large is very much in favor of American withdrawal. In fact, the Status of Forces Agreement is called the withdrawal agreement by the Iraqi people in the vernacular.

However, in general, we don't let populations make foreign and defense policy decisions. And sometimes, things that the people say they want, in fact, aren't particularly good for them. And I appreciate Ed's concern with the continued American investment in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I'd like to correct one fact, if I could.

CONAN: Sure.

Lt. Col. NAGL: The testaments I've seen are that about 150,000 Iraqis came to a premature demise as a result of the - directly and indirectly as a result of the American invasion of Iraq. That is a very high price that the Iraqi people have paid, without a doubt. But it does not mean that we can wash our hands of Iraq, walk away and not bear responsibility for what happens afterwards.

So we saw what happened when the United States did not provide security to the people of Iraq when the country was under severe strain. And in 2006, the country came to the brink of civil war, with literally hundreds of bodies found every day in Baghdad, tortured. It's no guarantee that were America withdraw, precipitately, that that would happen again. But it is a pretty fair bet that the Iraqi government, the Iraqi security forces aren't ready to stand on their own yet.

And, in fact, throughout the world, the United States stations forces to provide security and stability. We continue to do that in Germany and Italy and Japan more than 60 years after the end of the Second World War. We continue to have American troops in South Korea, providing security on that troubled peninsula and a counterweight to Kim Il-dung and Kim Jung-il so that that dynasty of despair, quite frankly, and of suffering.

So the United States has an important role to play, I believe, in a number of places around the globe in deterring conflict and of preventing conflict from growing worse. I'm afraid that's going continue to be the case in Iraq for a number of years, and in Afghanistan, as well. And I think we have to do that in order to keep the American people safe.

CONAN: John Nagl on the Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is Chuck, Chuck calling from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thank you very much. Part of the original rationale for going into Iraq was that the support for undemocratic regimes in the region had not served our interests.

The thing I'm concerned about is 10 years from now, if our relationship with Iraq is one where we're propping up a strong man - and there was some reference made to Maliki perhaps consolidating his power - the lessons of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein, the shah of Iran, Marcos, Musharraf - the list goes on - I think there's some validity to the theory that supporting undemocratic regimes doesn't serve our interests. And if that's what we're doing in 10 years in Iraq, that concerns me.

Lt. Col. NAGL: And Chuck, I share that concern. The good news is that Iraq at least, and almost uniquely in the Middle East, that we are currently supporting a government that was democratically elected and is about to have another set of democratic elections. So the support we're giving to Iraq, in my eyes, is a good investment in a democratic future.

I think that were America to withdraw precipitately, the chances of this nation, this fledgling democracy strengthening, catching root, taking hold and becoming if not a model for the region, at least an example of the fact that the Arab world can, in fact, nurture democracies, I think that that would be a huge tragedy.

And in particular, with democracy, a very imperfect democracy, what appears to have been a stolen election in Iran right next door, but with the brave people of Iran, many of them demonstrating in support of democracy, in support of elections, now is exactly not the time to step back from Iraq, to step away from that young democracy and not provide it with the security it needs to weather this difficult few years ahead.

CONAN: And let me just follow up on Chuck's call with this email from Leonard: How does this view that a military extended stay square with President Obama's decision to leave in 2011?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Mm-hmm. Important to note that it was not initially President Obama who decided to leave in 2011, but President Bush. The Status of Forces Agreement was…

CONAN: I think President Obama campaigned on 16 months after taking office.

Lt. Col. NAGL: He did. And, in fact, President Obama stepped back from that timeline and agreed to, based on military advice, agreed to a longer commitment of American forces to Iraq, a slightly longer commitment of American forces to Iraq - in fact, the same numbers that were negotiated by the Bush administration.

And although that is the current plan and that is the plan that the United States Department of Defense, the U.S. military, the Department of State are planning to implement, the fact is that conditions on the ground sometimes change and that were Iraq or the Iraqi government, the democratically elected sovereign government of Iraq, to ask the United States for a Status of Forces Agreement allowed the presence of some American forces after 2011, that I think it would be imprudent of the United States not to at least consider that request in light of the continued security of the region and of the United States.

Personally, I believe that the Iraqi government in 2011 will recognize that it is not fully capable on its own, that it will ask the United States for more help. And then, of course, it will be an American decision whether to grant that help or not.

I think one of the things we'd have to look at is the fact that if we did not provide help to an Iraqi ally that asked for it in 2011, that there would be other people who might be willing to do so. And it would not necessarily be in our interest for those countries to be the ones providing help to a sovereign democratic Iraq in 2012 and beyond. There are no easy answers, I'm afraid, to these very good questions.

CONAN: And a lot of good questions raised in your paper, as well. We just have time, very quickly, to look ahead to the economic future. Oil has been very much Iraq's economic engine. Certainly, that economy has to diversify. People are going to have to get work.

Lt. Col. NAGL: That is absolutely true. And one of the things I recommend in the paper is putting more resources into the agricultural sector in Iraq. And I'm currently in my office looking at a can of Harir tomato paste. It's an odd artifact. But the fact is that Iraq, known as the land of the two rivers between the Tigris and the Euphrates, can grow enough food to feed the whole country. But it's not able to do so because the food simply rots in the fields and in storage. The infrastructure required to preserve, protect and ship that food to where it's needed doesn't exist.

And so a number of organizations are now working to provide the capital to Iraq to rebuild its economic infrastructure and feed itself and provide more jobs for more people in other sectors rather than just the oil sector.

CONAN: Dr. Nagl, I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there, but thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Thank you.

CONAN: John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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