LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
There are thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea. They're guarding against an invasion from North Korea as they've done for 50 years. The deployment has worked. This past week, President Bush said the troops helped achieve an objective for all of us, and today the Fareast is peaceful.
Now, some military thinkers are sighting that example as a template for Iraq. The idea would be to sharply reduce the number of American forces in Iraq but keep them there for a long time.
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: South Korea seems to be all the rage when talk turns to troop levels in Iraq. White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week that President Bush looks to South Korea as a kind of model.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): You have the United States there in what has been described as an over the horizon support role. But the Iraqis are conducting the lion's share of the business. As we have in South Korea where from many years there had been American forces stationed there.
BOWMAN: The Pentagon quickly embrace the idea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it's a worthy goal down the line.
Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): So I think that the reason that Korea has been mentioned is - and it's been mentioned in contrast to Vietnam where we just left, lock, stock and barrel. And the idea is more a model of a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence but one that is, by consent of both parties and under certain conditions...
BOWMAN: Those conditions include American troops training the Iraqi forces. Serving as a stabilizing presence in guarding against possible troublesome neighbors, especially Iran.
Fred Kagan, a defense analyst in the intellectual force behind the so-called surge in American troop levels says the South Korean model is all about a partnership.
Mr. FRED KAGAN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): The American need to provide Iraq with a long term security guarantee which is going to require the deployment of American forces in Iraq to help enforce that guarantee and make it real.
BOWMAN: Making that guarantee real in Iraq would mean keeping U.S. troops there for many years. American troops have been in South Korea for five decades. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wonders if that's the message the administration wants to send.
Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution): The reason being that when you say something like the South Korea Mall, different audiences will read different things into that.
BOWMAN: A key question is when and if the Americans can get to that South Korea like level of forces - say 30,000 to 60,000. Right now, the security situation in Iraq is still grim even with the present high level of U.S. troops. And there is no political consensus among Democrats about how many troops to keep in Iraq. O'Hanlon says that if the violence in Iraq can be reduced, then the South Korean model might make sense in a narrow definition of smaller numbers of troops, but that's a big if.
Mr. O'HANLON: The likely hood is if we could find a strategy that works in Iraq, and it's not at all apparent that we have or will. I think the Iraqis will need our help at some level for an extended period.
BOWMAN: But how much help? And what's an extended period?
James Miller(ph), a former Pentagon official in the Clinton Administration and now a defense analyst suggest 60,000 troops. They would be advisers for Iraqis rather than combat troops.
Mr. JAMES MILLER (Defense Analyst): History would suggest that for counter insurgency or Civil War, a minimal amount of time is four to five years. Many have talked about 10 or more years.
BOWMAN: That kind of timetable makes sense to Fred Kagan, the architect of the so-called surge. But he says 100,000 or more U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq through next year and beyond to secure Iraq. Smaller levels could come sometime later.
That seems to be the view of top commanders in Iraq. Maintain the higher level of American troops to train Iraqi forces, patrol the streets and battle insurgents so long as needed. But General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is expected to report on September on the security situation. If there's little progress by then, election year pressures may force the issue for lawmakers in Washington says O'Hanlon.
Mr. O'HANLON: There's a high chance the U.S. Congress will simply choose to end the war at that time and may even have a veto proof majority to give President Bush a spending bill that provides enough money to bring the troops home, keep a small residual presence to counter al-Qaida and perhaps train some Iraqi and otherwise, cuts off funds.
BOWMAN: So Congress may in fact adopt that South Korean model sooner than the administration wants.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.