Views On The Iraq Withdrawal: From About Time To 'Absolute Disaster' : The Two-Way From Talk of the Nation: Opinions vary widely among a diverse group of experts about the wisdom of a U.S. withdrawal by year's end.
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Views On The Iraq Withdrawal: From About Time To 'Absolute Disaster'

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Views On The Iraq Withdrawal: From About Time To 'Absolute Disaster'

Views On The Iraq Withdrawal: From About Time To 'Absolute Disaster'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Three years ago, the outgoing Bush administration negotiated an agreement with the government of Iraq that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces at the end of 2011. As that deadline approached, the Obama administration made it clear that it was willing to keep thousands of American troops in Iraq beyond that date, primarily as trainers, but needed a formal request, approved by Iraq's parliament, which would include legal protections for U.S. troops.

As the prospect of such a request dimmed, the president declared on Friday that he now plans to follow the original timetable. Even so, some U.S. military trainers will remain, along with the enormous U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and thousands of American contractors.

Some criticize the announcement as a precipitous retreat that will abandon Iraq to Iranian influence, others as long-overdue recognition of the utter waste of lives and money in a misbegotten conflict.

Over the course of the next 10 weeks, we're going to examine the war, its costs and its accomplishments from any number of angles. Today we want to hear reaction from those of you who served in Iraq. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR commentator Ted Koppel joins us today, as he often does, from his home in Maryland. Ted, nice to have you back with us.

TED KOPPEL: And it's always good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And we have a lot to talk about, but congratulations on your new role with NBC TV's news magazine "Rock Center."

KOPPEL: NBC thanks you.

CONAN: Okay, the formulation is not essentially different except for maybe a few thousand. The last number we heard of the Americans who were going to stay on in Iraq was about 3,000.

KOPPEL: Well, first of all, I think it's a little bit disingenuous for the administration to have phrased it that they were prepared to accept an Iraqi request for more troops. The fact of the matter is that the commanding general in Iraq was recommending, in very strong terms, that anywhere between 20- and 27,000 U.S. troops remain behind.

He was told early on that was a nonstarter, came - brought it down to about, I think about 13,000, ultimately to 5,000. The U.S. military certainly believes that this is a precipitous withdrawal, and it's a very dangerous time. And I'd like to say just one other thing, Neal: You can absolutely believe that going into Iraq in the first place was a terrible mistake and still believe that getting out the way we're getting out right now is also a terrible mistake.

CONAN: Would be trying to stay there without the permission of Iraq's parliament, Iraq's government, which we spent so much time and effort to set up, would that be a mistake?

KOPPEL: I think some tougher negotiating probably could have caused the Iraqi government to say yes, we go along with it for a while. Let me just point out one thing: As much as the world loathed Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein was the equalizing force in the Persian Gulf that kept Iran in check.

When George Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he did for the Iranians what they were never able to do for themselves: He got rid of Saddam Hussein. We also disarmed the Iraqis so that today, whereas back nine years Iran and Iraq had roughly equivalent military forces, these days Iran has larger, more powerful military forces than it did back nine years ago.

Iraq, by contrast, has zero combat helicopters, zero fixed-wing aircraft, zero heavy artillery, zero heavy tanks. Without U.S. forces in there, if Iran were to make a move against Iraq again - and remember they fought an eight-year war during the 1980s - it would be devastating.

CONAN: U.S. forces are not exactly going away. The United States will retain bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, just over the horizon.

KOPPEL: Yes, that's what I heard the secretary of State say yesterday also, but the fact of the matter is if you don't have permission for U.S. forces to remain on their bases in Iraq, it goes - it goes without saying, I think, that you also don't have permission for them to make unauthorized cross-border raids.

How are they going to come into Iraq if they haven't been welcomed in the first place? And the influence of Iran in Iraq today is much greater than it was 10 years ago.

CONAN: Well, we're going to hear a number of voices on this issue this hour. Joining us now, former U.S. Army vice-chief of staff, retired General Jack Keane, who played a key role in designing the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. Since his retirement, he's visited Iraq many times as an advisor to U.S. commanders there. And General Keane, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

General JACK KEANE: It's nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: You were quoted in the Washington Times this weekend as saying this decision is an absolute disaster. How come?

KEANE: Well, frankly, you know, the genesis really goes back to the Bush administration stabilized and provided a relatively secure environment at the end of 2009 as the Obama administration was coming into office.

And clearly what needed to take place here, and there was a wink and a nod between all of the Iraqi national leaders to include parliamentary members, and certainly U.S. officials to include our military officials, that once the election was over with, the Iraqis would be prepared to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement which would permit, then, our forces to stay somewhat indefinitely. I'm not saying 20 or 30 years, but probably no time frame would be put on it.

Now why did we want those forces there? Well, a lot of it has to do with influence. It has less to do with security. Influence in the sense that we wanted to continue to strengthen Iraq's democracy, influence in the sense that we wanted to continue to grow and develop the Iraqi security forces. And Ted is very accurate. The Iraqis want to transition to a conventional military, and they want us to assist in that so they can protect themselves from external forces.

And then the third thing that we were very concerned about, and even more so given this decision, is the influence of the Iranians. And we wanted to frankly curb that influence. So we knew for a fact that when we have stayed post-conflict in the past, in our history - Germany, Japan, Korea, to name some - it is a stabilizing influence on that country.

When we have moved out rapidly - Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti - things have a tendency to fall apart. So we knew that. The military commanders knew that, and the Obama administration rejected General Alston, a very thoughtful commander's proposal to maintain a reasonable force that would be able to accomplish the goals that I just stated.

CONAN: Well, in between the negotiation of that agreement and today, there was an election in Iraq. And the governing coalition includes 40 seats for Muqtada al-Sadr's group, which is - well, some people say very much swayed by Iran. But nevertheless, Muqtada al-Sadr, our former enemy, said he would oppose this to the death and would go back to fighting U.S. forces if they - any stayed on past January 1.

KOPPEL: Neal, he's actually gone one step further. I think either yesterday or the day before, al-Sadr said that in response to a question from one of his supporters, how would you feel about the huge U.S. Embassy and the personnel housed at that embassy in Baghdad? And he said: If they remain, I would consider that to be an act of aggression, and in effect he sanctioned the use of force against the U.S. Embassy.

CONAN: General Keane, the political situation, you're talking about the Iraqi military, the Iraqi - figures in the Iraqi government, at least, off the record. Publicly, there are very few people who will come out and say American troops must stay.

KEANE: Well, it's a fact that they wanted us to stay. And what took place in 2010, when Ambassador Hill was there, the fact of the matter is he was not committed to it. He was not committed to, in my judgment, a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq. The Iraqis saw that. They were frustrated with it, and going all the way back to 2010, I believe their hedging strategies began because they came to the conclusion that the United States was not serious about this strategic partnership.

Listen, they want to buy our military equipment. They want our military to train them, and they wanted a normal allied relationship with us that transcended military, economic, social, education assistance, their college-age kids going to school in our country. That's really what they were looking for.

And we began pulling away from them in 2010, and that permitted, then, the Iranians to gain the influence that they have today.

CONAN: Ambassador Hill, Ambassador Christopher Hill, who was the ambassador when the agreement was negotiated. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Today, we want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq to get your reaction to this news: 800-989-8255. Email We'll start with David(ph), David on the line from Pensacola.

DAVID: Yes, I served in Iraq in 2005, 2006 with the Marines. I'm a Navy corpsman. I'm just about to retire here in a few days myself. But when I was over there, it was just at the end of the second Fallujah push, and we were seeing a lot of casualties, and by the time I left, six months later, casualties had dropped off.

But the biggest problems that I think we had over there, like Mr. Koppel said about, you know, dismantling the military, we never should have done that because we didn't do that fully in Japan or Germany after World War II. We just took out top leadership and kept their military.

And then the second was not going in there with half a million troops. Our politicians, they didn't want casualties, but by not going in with enough troops, they caused all the casualties that we had. And I'll take my comments off - my answers off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Well, just one historically incorrect on Japan. But anyway, Ted?

KOPPEL: Look, I think there's one word that hasn't been used in that conversation yet, and I think it's high time that we inserted it, and that word is oil. The fact of the matter is that a lot of what we have done and are doing in that region has a lot less to do with our commitment to democracy among some of those countries out there as it does to making sure that Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf does not at some point in the future result in a choking-off of the Straits of Hormuz.

We're still getting an enormous amount of oil and natural gas out of that region, and even if it doesn't come directly to the United States, as you know, it's a global market. If that were ever to be choked-off, it would be an absolute strategic fiasco for the United States.

CONAN: We're talking with commentator Ted Koppel and retired General Jack Keane. Up next, Bob Woodward will join us to talk more about the politics of the president's decision. If you served in Iraq, what's your reaction? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The Iraq war as we know it is over. All U.S. troops will be home by the end of the year. Reaction to the president's decision, as you can imagine, runs from 'it's about time' to 'prelude to disaster.'

All of the top Republican presidential hopefuls spoke out against the troop pullout. Michele Bachmann accused the president of weakness. The withdrawal, she said in a statement, represents the complete failure of President Obama to secure an agreement with Iraq. We've been ejected from a country by people that we liberated and that the United States paid for with precious blood and treasure.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republican members of the Armed Services Committee, described the decision to leave Iraq as a mistake. Senator Graham told Fox News Sunday: At a time when we need troops in Iraq to secure the place against intervention by Iran and the bad actors in the region, we're going into 2012 with none. It was his job, the Obama administration's job, to end this well. They failed.

Others, including Democratic Senator Carl Levin, backed the president. In light of Iraq's refusal to eliminate the possibility that U.S. troops would face prosecution in Iraqi courts, he said, President Obama made the right decision.

And the Savannah Morning News, home to nearby Fort Stewart, called the president's decision welcome news, especially for some soldiers of the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart and their families. Elements of the Third ID have been expected to deploy to Iraq later this year. Now, however, they literally will be home for Christmas. The total pullout is the right decision. Give President Obama credit for making it.

We want to hear reaction from those of you who served in Iraq: 800-989-8255. Email us, And you can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are NPR commentator Ted Koppel and retired general and former vice-chief of the U.S. Army, Jack Keane. Joining us now is Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, author of several books on U.S. presidents, Afghanistan and Iraq, most recently the 2010 book "Obama's Wars." He's at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville today and joins us there by phone. And nice to have you back with us.

BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.

CONAN: And this is the president making good on a campaign promise, as he said.

WOODWARD: Well, it is, but I think General Keane's right about something, and if you do a little reporting on this, the level of distress within the military couldn't be higher at this decision. And I've even heard talk about some senior people in the military discussing resigning over it. They think it's that serious, it's that big a mistake.

And if you can pull back, and Iraq and the war is such an emotional issue, but if you can take the emotion out of it for a moment, there is an alternative, and I think that hasn't been sufficiently explored, and that is kind of an insurance policy.

Given the $1 trillion investment, the investment in thousands of lives, thousands of people injured and the whole trauma of the war, and that level of expenditure, logically you just don't want to go from so much to zero. And the question is: Can you persuade the Iraqi government to let some of our troops stay?

And there are some people who think this, even though we say we're going to pull out now, they may change this at the end, but the logic of not taking out or making absolutely the maximum effort to have the insurance policy here, because the discussion by General Keane and Ted Koppel is exactly right.

This is still a volatile area, and Neal, you were saying the Iraq war is over. I'm not sure. There's no guarantee it's over.

CONAN: Jack Keane, let me ask you: The issue that the talks broke down on was protection, legal protection for U.S. soldiers. If the Iraqi parliament was unwilling to offer that, should that have been a deal-breaker?

KEANE: Well, I think it was a bit of a false issue, in a sense. I'm not suggesting the issue wasn't there, but I don't think it really was the deal-breaker. The deal-breaker, from my understanding, as I tried to indicate, really went all the way back to 2010, when we started to pull away from the Iraqis in terms of a long-term strategic relationship.

They didn't believe that that was going to be the case, and that's when the hedging strategy began, and that's also when the Iranians started to have considerably more influence. So while that may have been the last thing negotiated, was the immunity issue, I don't believe it's the thing that truly broke this down. What broke it down was the Iraqis lost faith in us in terms of this long-term strategic partnership.

You know, if you go back to the Strategic Framework Agreement, put the Status of Forces Agreement aside, which is number of troops in Iraq and the timetable associated with it, they insisted on the Strategic Framework Agreement. It was their idea. It surprised our negotiators.

And what the Strategic Framework Agreement is about is a long-term strategic partnership with its new ally, the United States. And they fought for that agreement, and we negotiated through that process. We were the ones who pulled away from that agreement in 2010.

CONAN: Is Bob Woodward right? Are people talking about resignation?

KEANE: I don't know that to be the case, but then again, I've not been speaking to the guys who've got their hands on the throttle here. I know they must be frustrated, and they've got their hands full, and the last thing they need to do is be talking to me.

WOODWARD: Well, and then - but they definitely talked about this, and in the confirmation hearings of General Petraeus to become CIA director, he was asked about this. Now, he'd been the long-time commander in Iraq and was just coming off being the commander in Afghanistan. And he said, as other military officials have testified under oath, that the policy adopted here is not the one that has been recommended, and that this is something that - I think General Keane's got it exactly right.

There was a pulling-back. Let's face it, and with good reason. President Obama does not like the Iraq war. It made him - really got the first national attention as a state senator in Illinois when he gave that speech in 2002 saying if we go to war - and this was before the war started - it would be undetermined time, undetermined cost and undetermined consequence.

He turned out to be right on that, but I think just viscerally he does not like this war, and as you suggest, he wants to deliver on a campaign promise. The real question, the real policy question, is: Is this a prudent course? And there are a lot of very informed people in the military and elsewhere who just say it isn't smart.

We've got 28,000 troops in Korea. If we can do that, is it possible that there, for insurance purposes and the purposes of influence and the purposes of just having a presence on the ground, could you have five or 10 thousand troops there? And the reality is we could.

CONAN: Yet - Ted, I'll bring you back in - but we have seen celebrations as American bases have closed down in places like Mosul, a very volatile part of that country. The occupier has left. There may be this sentiment in the senior commands of the Iraqi military and maybe the government too, but the Iraqi people seem to be very happy with this decision.

KOPPEL: Look, I think, Neal, you're absolutely right in what you say about some of the Iraqi people, maybe even many of the Iraqi people. Politically, both in Iraq and here at the United States, it's a very smart decision, and it's going to go down very well. And the president is going to be perceived as having brought an honorable conclusion to the Iraq war, and now he can focus on jobs and the American economy.

The problem is that, by and large, the American public doesn't spend a great deal of time focusing on foreign affairs, and it doesn't spend a great deal of time focusing on looming storms in parts of the world that can have a tremendous impact on precisely the issues that are important to them: jobs and the economy.

There is no place in the world that has the potential of having a greater influence on U.S. domestic affairs than the Persian Gulf. And even though no one's paying a great deal of attention to it now or is likely to during the first few months of the presidential campaign, I think before this election happens next November, you're going to see this become a large issue again.

CONAN: Well, Bob Woodward, let me put that in another context. A week ago, you could have fairly said the United States was involved in two and a half wars. Today maybe you can say in 10 weeks' time it'll be one.

WOODWARD: You can, but no one knows the future. I hate to keep repeating this, but it is the issue: What is the prudent course here? And you raise exactly the right points about popular opinion and so forth, but it's up to the leaders - in this case President Obama - to make sure he's chosen a course that is not emotional, that it is not politically driven, and - I mean, General Keane is, you know, one of the world's foremost experts on Iraq.

The possibility of negotiating some sort of agreement and then carrying it out where we have five or 10 thousand troops, General, isn't that - it's not easy, and it would be difficult, but isn't it something in the realm of the possible?

KEANE: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we know all the players here very well, and we know what their interests are, and we certainly know how to deal with them. We would have to obviously commit to them that this long-term strategic partnership truly has value to us, and we would have to demonstrate that to them. And I think that would probably get the president of the United States involved with some kind of commitments to Maliki as well. But that's not the feeling that certainly that they have.

And the other thing is, is that in this part of the world, we really have to keep our eye on the ball because the Iranians are our strategic enemy in the world, and certainly in this region. And every action they are taking is to advance their own regional hegemony. And certainly, Iraq is part of the fabric of that story. So when we're taking actions, we just cannot cavalierly ignore that country and what its regional objectives are and the influence it already has. And this is a country that's marching towards nuclear weapons.

And when that happens, that will be the world's great nightmare in front of it; to deal with a rogue state like that, as unpredictable as they are, as zealotry as they are to possess nuclear weapons and what it will portend for us.

CONAN: Gentlemen, I know you all changed your schedules to be with us today, and we've taken you over the time you committed. We thank you very much. You just heard retired Army General Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, with us from our bureau in New York. General Keane, always good to have you with us.

KEANE: Oh, thank you, Neal. It's good being with you and also with Bob and Ted.

CONAN: All right. Bob is at the University of Virginia today. He's associate editor, of course, of The Washington Post, most recently the author of "Obama's Wars." Bob Woodward, nice to have you with us.

WOODWARD: Thank you.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel with us from his home in Maryland. Ted, we'll have you back soon.

KOPPEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're going to take some more calls on this question and bring in some more opinions as well. So stay with us. Here's an email from John in Tacoma, Washington. Aren't we actually leaving many more troops in Iraq than has been implied while changing their name of their command from the U.S. to NATO? NATO has no involvement in Iraq. You may be confusing that with Afghanistan, which is a NATO command in addition to U.S. forces. But that is Afghanistan and not Iraq.

The agreement, as far as I understand it, does call for some U.S. soldiers, people in uniform to stay behind as trainers for things like tanks and aircraft as they're introduced to the Iraqi forces, but it does not call for U.S. troops to stay behind as such. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. Let's go next to David. David with us from Newark, Delaware.

DAVID: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

DAVID: Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air.

DAVID: Yeah. I served as an Army reservist with the Coalition Military Training Assistance Team, and our job was to rebuild the new Iraqi army. And I just want to make just a few comments. I mean, one of the things most soldiers knew while we were over there serving is that the argument about weapons of mass destruction was kind of false, and it really had an impact on our morale while we were there. And as I heard, you know, some would talk about resignations of senior military officials, you should have seen the amount of people who want to resign at that time that were already in the military.

So I think that's kind of a false argument to kind of talk about how brass are talking about retiring when you've had so many defections from the military overall. Also, I agree with the previous email that said we'll have CIA and State Department on the ground there. And the fact that when we were there, we knew they were also there taking care of some of the business we were doing, but there was never a real winning strategy. So we have to really consider the morale of the enlisted and troops who are on the ground and not just what the senior brass are thinking. And I'll just take your comments off the air.

CONAN: Well, I just want to ask one other thing, David. If you were involved in training, are the Iraqis ready? For example, do they have any army - any armor, any artillery, any helicopters, any fixed-wing aircraft?

DAVID: Well, I was there in 2003, 2004 and at that time they were not going to be an expeditionary force. They were just going to be a defense force. I served under General Paul Eaton, who was a two-star general at the time. And we have built a training environment that was just - it was a contracting-based kind of training environment built around the British royal system. And it really was mostly about securing areas, and it wasn't so much about being able to take part in large-scale combat. But over time, I know they've retrained the army and the military there to do those kinds of things. So I'm not sure of the assessment of the troops now.


DAVID: But at that time there was a different kind of goal.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVID: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to - this is Chris. Chris with us from Pendleton, Oregon.

CHRIS: Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. You're on the air.

CHRIS: Hi. I just wanted to comment first on the last caller. I just returned from Iraq a couple of months ago, actually. And I know for a fact that they're being trained on tanks. Now, they're outdated, you know, Soviet tanks, but they're still being trained on those sort of things. But the point that no one is bringing up is, you know, we've been there for 10 years. We've been in the COIN battle for the last five years.

CONAN: Counterinsurgency is COIN, yes, go ahead.

CHRIS: OK. All right. We have done everything necessary, everything possible that we can do to take an Eastern belief system and put a Western government into it. And what they do from there is their choice. It's time for us to withdraw all our troops, and when I say all, I mean all, not leaving a contingency back, because al-Sadr, although he has 40 seats in the government right now, is the one majority in power, and he will keep true to his promises if we keep troops there. He will eliminate them. So we're sending our soldiers to their deaths if we keep them there.

CONAN: And...

CHRIS: And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Well, again, well, our guests have left, but I wanted to ask you as you look at the withdrawal, are you concerned that this is going to be an issue there?

CHRIS: Well, you had commented earlier about the close of Mosul. I think that there's an issue with leaving Kirkuk there, although it's probably the safest place in Iraq for our U.S. soldiers to be because of the Kurdish influence in the area. The State Department in Baghdad is definitely just not a good idea. It will get hurt.


CHRIS: The Iraqi people are celebrating our withdrawal. The insurgent groups are going to step up their attacks to make it look like they pushed us out. And I think we're really in a no-win situation right now with that. Unless we do a mass exodus and take everyone out, we're looking at some hard times ahead.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much and welcome home.

CHRIS: Thanks.

CONAN: Kirkuk, he mentioned is the oil city in the northern part of Iraq. Its status - should it be part of Kurdistan or part of Iraq proper? That's not been decided. The distribution of oil between the various sectors of Iraq, that has yet to be decided, too. In fact, the most recent Iraqi parliament has yet to confirm a minister of defense or a minister of the interior. A lot of issues unresolved in Iraq. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right now, we're talking about President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year. We want to hear reaction from those of you who served in Iraq. 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. With us now here in Studio 3A is Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress where he focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. And thanks very much for being with us today.

BRIAN KATULIS: Great to be with you.

CONAN: And your organization supports the president's decision. I assume you do, too.

KATULIS: Yes. I think it's the right decision. I think this president came to office saying that we needed to rebalance our overall national security priorities, and that we were overinvested in Iraq, and what he said he is doing. And I would note that - and I think you said at the top, too - that what he's doing is implementing a security agreement that was signed in 2008 by the Bush administration and the Maliki government. Yes, there was an attempt to try to renegotiate it. And I actually think there's still attempts ongoing to figure out what the actual U.S. footprint will be because there will be a sizable footprint, and I think there will be a lot of creative fictions related to it. So, you know, the - but on balance, I think he's taken the right decision here as the commander in chief to try to set our priorities straight.

CONAN: As you know, critics say this is the United States leaving a vulnerable Iraq open to Iranian influence, indeed Iranian military power.

KATULIS: Yeah. I heard a lot of those arguments from the previous guests, and I think there's a lot of Chicken Little arguments out there. I think there are real threats. I'm worried for Iraqis. I think a lot of the threats are internal. You look at the challenges in the disputed territories in Kirkuk and other places. I think there are very real risks there. You look at the Sunni community, which I think is facing an Iraqi government and security forces that have a lot of problems. You look at the Iraqis that are affiliated with the U.S. There's a real challenge with those individuals.

But with Iran - and one thing I'd say one of your previous guests, General Jack Keane, I think was a bit inaccurate when he said that Iranian influence increased in 2009. That's actually incorrect. I mean, Iran influence grew considerably in 2003 to 2008, and then in reaction to that, you saw a strong reaction of Iraqi nationalism. So I think the Iranian argument is a bit a red herring. Iran today is more isolated not only regionally but also internationally, and it's weak.

I don't think it has as much credibility among the Iraqi people, so let's argue sort of the case for staying there for the reasons that I think internal stability of Iraq as opposed to sort of these red herring or Chicken Little arguments.

CONAN: Well, there is also the possibility that the Iraq conflict that is the three-way battle among Shia, Sunni and Kurd could easily reignite.

KATULIS: Yeah. Absolutely. And this was when I was talking about the disputed territories, the Arab and Kurd (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Kirkuk (unintelligible).

KATULIS: Yeah, yeah. Kirkuk is the most, I think, volatile, and I worry about what will happen there. And I actually think they'll be creative fictions and workarounds. No matter what is decided in these announcements on Friday, I think, what you'll see is probably a renegotiation of what the security support will be provided to the Iraqis in the long run. And I think, you know, the most vociferous arguments for those who are talking about the risks coming ahead come from those who backed the surge of U.S. military forces to Iraq in 2007, 2008.

And the reality is, is much of what we did there was embolden some of Iran's best allies and the security forces that the real surge that mattered was the doubling of the Iraqi security forces, not the 10 to 15 percent increase of U.S. forces. And in that period that General Jack Keane was talking about, that's when you saw the major increase of Iranian influence.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Alexandra. Alexandra with us from I-10 in Tennessee.



CONAN: I-40, OK.


CONAN: All right. I just can't read the screen. I apologize. Go ahead.

ALEXANDRA: That's OK. How are you? Actually, I just had a few comments that I - I had a lovely conversation with the screener. However, I just got back from Iraq about eight days ago. It was my second tour being a reservist, and it's kind of frustrating because we hear this, oh, we're going to pull out. We're getting the troops out. Just because we're getting the troops does not mean we're coming home. I was merely replaced by a civilian, by an American civilian, Department of State person. So just because there's not a soldier there does not mean that we're not continuing to supply the personnel and the training and the funding to go over there. So I just think that's something that should be noted. Like just because there's not soldiers there does not mean there's not, you know, U.S. money and U.S. dollars and U.S. training, you know, going into that region.

CONAN: Will you, though, miss another deployment?

ALEXANDRA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: You - doesn't look likely that you will be deployed there again.

ALEXANDRA: I'm hoping not.

CONAN: I suspect you're right. So there's at least a silver lining to your concerns.

ALEXANDRA: Well, kind of, but I think it's kind of a double-edge sword there. We're saying we're going to pull out. We're going to pull out. We're not really pulling out. We're just replacing a soldier with a Department of State person. That's it.

CONAN: Well, Brian...

ALEXANDRA: That's the only difference.

CONAN: ...this is some of the creative...

KATULIS: The creative fictions. I mean, this is - we will still have a sizeable footprint. And what's interesting to me is not only this caller but David and Chris earlier, all of them served in Iraq. You see this difference between those who served on the ground and then the armchair generals in Washington who are saying, oh, we've got to stay there and this is disastrous. A lot of the people that I've talked to who've served in Iraq say, you know what? We've done what we could. Now, we're still trying to do what we can do. We're trying to still take a sad song and make it better.

And I think it's going to be, actually, a bit more difficult because the State Department lacks a lot of the capacities that we're going to be throwing on their shoulders, training of police and all sorts of things like this. It's going to be extremely difficult for them to implement this mission, and I think it makes it even trickier there.

CONAN: Alexandra, welcome home to you too.

ALEXANDRA: Thank you. Appreciate it. Also, to comment on that. Again, like they're getting excellent training, and they're getting like the training that we have provided for them, I feel, was some of the best trainings that we could have provided. But like I can teach a runner to run, but I can't teach him the mentality to complete the marathon. We can't change that mentality. We can provide them all the training that they want, but we're not going to change a mentality so - but thank you. I appreciate it and have a great day.

CONAN: OK. You too.

KATULIS: That mentality thing is important because the counter-insurgency theorists assume that if we just train and stay there and try harder and negotiate harder - they're wrong - but we can't change the political cultures of these places simply by staying there, and we've seen from so many people who go there and try and done their best. But we can't forge and force things upon people that don't want it.

CONAN: We now turn to Peter Van Buren, a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department for more than two decades. He spent a year in Iraq in 2009, leading a provincial reconstruction team as part of the so-called civilian surge. He wrote a book about that experiences, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." The book has gotten him into some trouble with his bosses at the State Department for its open criticism of the U.S. efforts there. And Peter Van Buren joins us now from his office in Washington. Nice to have you with us today.

PETER VAN BUREN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

CONAN: And your reaction to the news that U.S. forces will be out by the end of the year.

VAN BUREN: Well, I think a bit of - a thought about the question whether this was a decision by President Obama. It seems that the decision was made in Baghdad. The idea of the United States military remaining as a hedge against the Iranians is a bit of a red herring, but I think different than the way your earlier guest referred to it.

The Iranians have been in Iraq for a long time and have played a very significant role there. In the area that I operated in, out east of Baghdad, the Iranian presence was everywhere. Iranian products dominated the markets. Iranian tour buses brought pilgrims from Iran into an area called Salman Pak where there's a particular mosque that has importance to them. The Iranians were the handmaidens of the March 2010 election. If you go down to Basra in southern Iraq, the Iranian consulate there is the dominant building on the skyline. The Iranian flag rivals something that Pyongyang would put up on the border.

The Iranians are not going to attack Iraq with tanks and grenades. They don't need to. They've already successfully shown that they can influence events there. The prize of the oil is in the southern in part of Iraq, and the Iranians are a steady presence there.

CONAN: We mentioned Kirkuk as an oil city. The larger deposits, as you mentioned, are in southern Iraq and Basra is the capital of that region. But should the United States, Peter Van Buren, keep forces there to try to stave off this eventuality?

VAN BUREN: Well, we've had - we currently have today 40,000 American soldiers still there, and that doesn't seemed to have made much of a difference. I don't know that keeping another 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 there past January 1st would actually make any difference. The issues that we uncorked in 2003, the Sunni-Shia, the Sunni - the Arab-Kurd, and in particular, the rise of Iran's power in Iraq were not stopped by 100,000 soldiers during the surge, and they haven't been whittled back by 40,000 soldiers during the last two years.

The United States has largely stepped back over the last two years from, quote, internal politics, unquote, if you will, in Iraq. The Iranians have filled that void very comfortably and will continue to do. This is not a battle that's going to be won by shooting anyway. The Iranians are winning it through economic means, through religious tourism and, particularly, through working with the oil producers.

CONAN: There are other neighbors of Iraq with interests there, and this would include Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

VAN BUREN: One of the many unresolved issues, of course, is the Turkish border. And today, the Turks - reports are saying that the Turks have moved armored vehicles across the border and are fighting again in northern Iraq. This is almost unreal. If you could imagine a NATO ally, Germany, invading a country and the United States remaining on the sidelines silent about that; it'd be quite a shocking thing. But, in fact, the Turks seemed to go over the border as they need to. The Kurd issue remains unresolved, the sharing of oil revenues remains unresolved, the lack of services in Iraq remains unsolved. As Ambassador Crocker said a few years ago in a different context, the history of this hasn't happened yet. The most significant events are still to come.

CONAN: We're talking with Peter Van Buren, a career U.S. foreign service officer for over two decades. Also with us, Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Jonathan on the line. Jonathan calling us from Sacramento.

JONATHAN: Yes. Hi there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

JONATHAN: I just want to comment regarding the - Obama's decision to pull out the troops. I totally agree with it, because we'd already done our part where we liberated the people. We took Saddam out, and we helped them as much as we could, so now it's time for them to handle their situations and their differences between each other. It's the same case that happened in Somalia. We tried to liberate them from the dictator they had, but we cannot solve that issue between their tribal problems that they have. For 20 years now, they have no government. So basically, pulling our troops out and saving lives is the best option that President Obama has done so far. So I'm totally agreeing with him.

And the Shiite-Sunni problem they have in Iran has been going on forever. It was - even when Saddam was there, before when Saddam was there. We did our part and now it's for their neighboring Arab countries that share the same cultures - the oil-rich countries that share the same culture, they need to take a step in. They need to go into the negotiations. They need to help the country instead of letting the U.S. do everything.

CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much for the call. Brian Katulis, I wanted to ask you, during the Iran-Iraq War, both the Iraqis and the Iranians made fundamental errors. The Iraqis thought that the Arabs in Iran would rise up and support them. That didn't happen. Later, the Iranians thought that the Shia in Iraq would rise up and support them. That didn't happen either. Are we exaggerating the extent of the Iranian influence in Iraq, do you think?

KATULIS: I think we are. And the forces of the nationalism remain very, very strong, and I think it's at the core of why this decision the Obama administration has made about the troop withdrawal. And again, the U.S. is still going to continue to make considerable investments in Iraq, whether or not there are troops on the ground. There's going to be at least 140 doing security training in a particular office. There's going to be a much larger footprint. And I think, despite the public announcements, we should look at what's actually on the ground come February or March of next year because I would bet it's going to be much larger than zero.

CONAN: Peter Van Buren, the United States - even if it is what we're talking about, virtually all American in uniform out of Iraq, the United States will remain in Kuwait. The United States will remain in Bahrain. It's going to be a considerable influence in Baghdad as well.

VAN BUREN: An influence, certainly, but an influence that works roughly in one dimension, a kinetic dimension, if you will. I would argue that the next phase of Iraq's history - I can't put a date on it, but we'll give it six to 12 months - is already happening, kind of a slow-motion car wreck. The violence continues. Certainly, it's less than - pick your favorite year of the war, it's less than that, but it still continues. It's largely Sunni-Shia. It represents micro-power struggles, not necessarily anything on as large a scale as national movements. There's not going to be helicopters on the roof, that type of thing. But as these issues sort themselves out, they will continue to do so at a low level but a persistent hum that is resistant to American kinetic influence as it has been for roughly almost nine years now.

CONAN: Well, let's get one more caller in. This is Christian, Christian calling us from Wilmington in North Carolina.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. I served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan before then, throughout 2003 through '07. I've since come out and went to school, but all of my closest friends are soldiers or veterans. The news that we were bringing the troops home and, you know, that is the - a loud speak to who's really staying there? But to bring them home on a whole, it was good news. I was rather shocked that it could be spun, I guess, by the recent political party, you know, domination attempts or whatever and their pandering. But I - none of my friends thought it was a bad idea. And for the guys that are being trained there, let the strategic leaders who have these good ideas go to the State Department and they will train our - you know, we'll keep people there. There are people who can do that job that are Americans or, hopefully, a U.N. presence and not a U.S. soldier because we've shown over and over again that our predictions there were wrong, and the troops sentiment is to come home. It's the right thing.

CONAN: And, Brian Katulis, we just have a few seconds left. But, certainly, all the opinion polls suggest that Christian is right, not just for his Army buddies, but the American people have had enough.

KATULIS: Absolutely. And again, President Obama has led the country to where it wants to go, and it is to rebalance our priorities, focus on the problems at home, and also deal aggressively with the problems that attacked us on 9/11, which he has.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his focus is on the Middle East, South Asia and the - and security. Our thanks as well to Peter Van Buren, a career U.S. foreign service officer who spent a year as a provincial reconstruction team leader in Iraq in 2009, author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." Thanks very much for being with us today.

KATULIS: Very much.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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