Monday, August 18, 2008

Withdrawal Debate on National Public Radio

On August 16, Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl were interviewed on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered about the withdrawal debate. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, recently helped write a position paper, “How To Redeploy,” that calls for a quick drawdown of American forces in Iraq. He sent his piece to Nagl, an Iraq veteran who helped edit the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual, which formed the basis for the radio interview.

Korb said that as soon as a withdrawal date is set, all U.S. forces should be pulled out as quickly as possible. He believes that could be accomplished as quickly as eight to ten months. The main argument for pulling out troops according to him is to force Iraq’s politicians and neighbors to handle their own problems rather than rely upon America. A continued U.S. presence also allows insurgents to recruit people who want to fight against a foreign occupation. Korb used a letter signed by a majority of Iraq’s parliament and Iraqi public opinion polls that call for the U.S. to withdraw as evidence that even Iraqis believe in his position. He claims that reconciliation will never happen between the different groups within the country without a withdrawal agreement. He quotes the recent postponement of provincial elections as an example. The political parties will not move forward in cutting deals with each other unless there is a threat of U.S. withdrawal to push along the process. Pulling out troops will also force Iraq’s neighbors to make a larger commitment. Finally, Korb argues that the Iraqi army and police will never overcome their sectarian differences unless they are motivated by a U.S. drawdown.

Retired Lt. Col. Nagl argued for a long-term presence in Iraq. He just returned from a tour of Iraq where he said the unanimous opinion of Iraqi politicians and citizens he met was for the U.S. stay. He said it was true that in the end, Iraqis do want the U.S. to leave, but now is not the time. He believed the calls for withdrawal by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were just election year politicking. In the meantime, U.S. forces are helping Iraq overcome its problems, but it is a slow process. Iraqi security forces for example, can’t handle the situation themselves yet, as he says recent fighting in Basra and Sadr City point out. It took the Americans five years to figure out counterinsurgency, and now they are trying to pass that knowledge down to the Iraqi army and police who are being rebuilt from scratch. In the end, Nagl said that America has long-term national interests in Iraq that would be threatened if there were to be a hasty withdrawal. He believes that the U.S. will eventually draw down its troops, but over several years. Today there are roughly 140,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq. By 2010 there could be 50,000-70,000, and by 2012 35,000. He used the example of Bosnia where there are still several thousand of U.S. forces after fifteen years for what Iraq could be like.

What ultimately happens with Iraq will be up to the next administration. While there are some similarities between the Korb-Nagl debate and the current one in the presidential race, there are some differences as well. For one, while Senator Barak Obama has called for U.S. forces to withdraw within sixteen months, that is for combat troops only. His plan would still leave tens of thousand of support, advisory, and counter-terrorism forces in Iraq, not the complete withdrawal Korb is advocating. Those numbers could be close to the 2010 ones Nagl advocated. Nagl’s points about the U.S. needing to stay for the long haul resemble McCain’s argument. Since winning the Republican nomination, McCain has also talked about not needing as many troops, but he has not given any specific dates or numbers. Ironically, both presidential candidates may end up with very similar Iraq policies.


All Things Considered, “Experts Discuss Strategies For Iraq Withdrawal,” National Public Radio, 8/16/08

Richter, Paul, “McCain, Obama inch closer on Iraq,” Los Angles Times, 5/16/08

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