U.S. Commander: Surge Assessment Premature
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Deborah Amos.
NOAH ADAMS, host:
And I'm Noah Adams.
In a few minutes, putting the brakes on high-speed high school debate.
AMOS: But first, a top American commander in Iraq says he needs more time to assess how things are going there. General Ray Odierno, the number two U.S. official on the ground, said today in a videoconference that he needs until November.
Joining me now is NPR's Tom Bowman who covers the Pentagon. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN: Hello, Deborah. How are you?
AMOS: I'm good. Tom, how significant is this message from Odierno? We've been expecting a major progress report in September, but now the general is talking about November.
BOWMAN: You know, I think it is pretty significant. It's one more instance of downplaying the September report. And from all we're hearing from commanders and people of the Pentagon is that this will be more a preliminary report in September, and what Odierno said today is in order to make what he called a good assessment and a more accurate assessment, he'll need at least until November. So it really is pretty significant and the question is, what does it mean politically.
A lot of Republicans are pointing to the September report. For example, Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said September would be a critical point. So Odierno is clearly kicking this can down the road.
AMOS: We thought July was the new September. Now it turns out November is the new September.
BOWMAN: That's exactly right.
AMOS: Towards the end of the videoconference, the general told the story about a Marine who's on his second deployment. Let's listen to the tape.
(Soundbite of videoconference)
Lieutenant General RAYMOND ODIERNO (U.S. Army Commander): He went on to say that the deployment this time was entirely different. Witnessing rebuilding projects, more Iraqi security forces, more normal daily routines, and a dramatic improvement in the security situation. He then looked at my sergeant major and asked, we're not going to be given enough time to finish this, are we, commander sergeant major? I'll just end it with that. I hope that that young Marine warrior is wrong.
AMOS: Tom, that was a pretty dramatic end to a conference. What do you make of that?
BOWMAN: Well, I think he and others are trying to send a message to policy makers: don't pull the rug out from under these soldiers and Marines who they say are, you know, doing good work over there. They're making progress. Don't end this surge, the so-called surge, too early. And Odierno has said and others have said they would like to see the surge go on at least through the end of the year, perhaps into next spring.
AMOS: But I thought that the surge actually had an end date. I thought it was supposed to begin ending next spring. So what do these comments mean?
BOWMAN: Well, clearly some on the Hill - many Democrats, of course, want to start to bring the troops home immediately, or soon. The commanders would like to see it go into the spring. The problem is, come next spring you sort of hit a wall with the Army. They run out of fresh troops.
And at that point, to maintain that high level of force in Iraq - 160,000 - you would have to reduce the amount of time soldiers spend at home. The army wants them to have one-year rest at home, 15 months in Iraq. But again in order to maintain that high level, you would have to reduce the time at home or increase the time in Iraq. So they really - it's a serious situation come spring. You would, in all essence, have to start reducing or make some really hard decisions.
AMOS: And all of the generals have been pushing the same message, which is things are improving. As far as you can see, do you think that's accurate?
BOWMAN: Well, in some areas, things are getting better. Clearly, in Anbar Province there is remarkable progress. But elsewhere, Diyala province, it's still a tough fight. Kirkuk now, we're seeing more violence up there. Baghdad is still clearly a mixed bag. So it depends where you are and who you ask.
AMOS: And you were specifically in Anbar. Can you talk on the ground - you know, we've seen the change of strategy there, with the U.S. military deciding to back Sunni tribes against al-Qaida, essentially splitting the two of them. Does that work and is that long-term?
BOWMAN: Well, it's interesting. Anbar, there is progress being made there, but also a lot of this progress was made before the so-called surge in troops. And a lot of that had to do with the tribal sheiks finally getting on board and helping the Americans.
And it's a largely Sunni area. These are Sunni tribal sheiks. So once you get them on board you can do a pretty good job of going after al-Qaida. In the mixed areas you have sectarian problems, and it's much more of a problem and a harder thing to do.
AMOS: Exactly, so it works - what might work in Fallujah doesn't necessarily work in Baghdad.
AMOS: Yeah. Thanks very much, Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon reporter. Thanks for joining us.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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