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In First Meeting With Military, Obama Outlines Goals for Action in Iraq

January 21, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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President Obama met with top military officials to discuss the status of Iraq and his administration's plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by May 2010. Retired Army generals discuss the feasibility of his plan.

JIM LEHRER: Next, the other major Obama agenda item of this day, Iraq and the military. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: It was one of candidate Obama’s top campaign promises, that on his first day as president he would convene his top military leaders and give them a new mission in Iraq.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In order to end this war responsibly, I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. We can responsibly remove one to two combat brigades each month. If we start with the number of brigades we have in Iraq today, we can remove all of them in 16 months.

MARGARET WARNER: But two months ago, after the campaign ended, the Bush administration finalized its own troop withdrawal deal with Iraq.

Under the status-of-forces agreement, or SOFA, U.S. combat troops will leave bases in Iraqi cities and towns by June 2009 and all U.S. forces will leave Iraq by December 2011.

President Obama’s campaign pledge called for removing all combat troops by May of 2010.

There are currently 140,000 forces, combat and non-combat, in Iraq.

The White House didn’t disclose what President Obama directed his top defense and military officials to do when they met to discuss Iraq late today. But an Obama transition spokeswoman said days ago that he would meet with his commanders, quote, “to make a determination how we move forward to safely redeploy our combat brigades in 16 months.”

Here to discuss what it would take to meet that pledge, we’re joined by retired General Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2003. He was one of the most prominent advocates of President Bush’s program to surge troops into Iraq. He is now a business consultant.

And retired Army General Wesley Clark, who was supreme allied commander in Europe from 1997 to 2000. He sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 and he, too, is a business consultant.

Welcome to you both, generals both.

Assessing Obama's pullout timeline

MARGARET WARNER: General Keane, beginning with you, how realistic is it now for President Obama to make good on that pledge to get all combat troops out of Iraq by May of 2010?

GEN. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Former army vice chief of staff: Well, to do something like that I think would increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months. It would be almost a brigade a month that we would have to reduce.

Most people who understand what's taking place in Iraq right now is a seminal event with a provincial elections at the end of this month, which will fundamentally change the character of Iraq forever, and also a national election at the end of this year.

Our commanders would like to see a force reduction this year, but a minimal one, to protect the political situation as it evolves throughout the rest of the year, with the reduction of maybe two brigades and possibly a third, and then with more major reductions in 2010 and completing it in 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying it's too risky to adhere to the timetable that would be required to meet President Obama's campaign pledge?

GEN. JACK KEANE: I think it's, in most people's minds, it's a risk that's not acceptable at this time to do it at that pace. Everyone knows we're going to take our troops out of Iraq; we've already agreed to do that with the Iraqis at a timetable that they contributed to, that they felt made a lot of sense to them.

To inject now a new timetable would require renegotiation, which we could do, and also -- but I think it's going to increase the risk that's taken place in terms of the stable political situation in Iraq.

Iraq policy part of larger strategy

MARGARET WARNER: General Clark, do you see it as risky?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (Ret.), Former supreme allied commander: It is risky. Whenever you pull back troops in something like this, you take a military risk. And those troops have done a magnificent job over there.

I think one aspect that has to be understood is that, when President Obama made that pledge almost a year ago, the context of what combat troops was, was taken from the legislation that was going back and forth through the House and the Senate, distinguishing combat troops from trainers, from counterinsurgency troops, or counterterrorist troops that would go against al-Qaida in Iraq, and distinguishing them from the logistic troops.

So to say that all combat troops will be out in 2010, in 16 months, doesn't necessarily mean that all troops will be out in 2010.

And my guess is that the Obama administration will listen very carefully to the military on the ground, to the diplomats in the region, and to men like Jack Keane, who have been very, very integrally connected with the surge and the success that's been achieved through it in Iraq before making any preemptory decisions.

Any decision to initiate a withdrawal is going to be reviewed and re-reviewed, and re-reviewed on a weekly and monthly basis, based on the results. And there are factors that are emerging now that weren't present in March, but also that weren't present in November.

The Iraqis that I talk to are increasingly self-confident. They want the American troops out of Baghdad. They still want logistics support. They want intelligence support. And they want a relationship with the United States.

But they feel they want to stand on their own two feet more. How that translates into a specific withdrawal timeline has got to be worked out between the military leaders on the ground, the Iraqi government, our diplomats, and there's also a regional context to this, because what we do in Iraq is affected by what we do with Iran and the nuclear challenge there, and how the Sunni nations in the region view that.

So all of this is part of a larger regional strategy.

Preparing Iraqi security forces

MARGARET WARNER: So, General Keane, General Clark seems to be saying it is realistic to meet the timetable, depending on your definition of combat troops. Is that how you see it?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, yes, I understand the distinction between combat troops and what we call support troops and logistics troops and the others. The fact of the matter is, a 16-month reduction of combat troops is probably somewhat unrealistic in the sense that we would still have a significant amount of troops left, and you would have to have combat troops there to provide the security for those other troops who are more supporters than they are fighters, not that all soldiers can't fight -- they can -- but it's not their mission to fight.

So, realistically, this is the first day of the president's responsibilities. He's doing what he said he would do; he would talk to his commanders and the Joint Chiefs. And I think he's probably listening more than anything else, learning from them, now in the position as commander-in-chief, one, getting updated, and, two, understanding what the current risk is, and certainly probing them about an accelerated reduction and what the risk inherent in that would be.

And I trust the judgment of the commanders and also the evidence of the president-elect, as he's gone through this process, indicates that he listens and he makes deliberate and methodical decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: General Clark, a couple of senior Iraqi officials were quoted this week as saying they didn't want any change in the withdrawal timetable, at least not in 2009, but that they did have a Plan B just in case something did change. How ready do you think Iraqi security forces are to operate on their own on a more rapid timetable?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, first of all, I'm not in a position to make a direct assessment of that, and so I don't want to give an answer that will sound as though I can make a direct assessment.

Really, Ray Odierno has to do that. Jack's been over there. He's seen it on the ground, also, and he can probably give you a good answer.

But what I'm getting from the Iraqi officials is, yes, they're proud of the work they did in a dust-up in Basra, but they know they don't have the intelligence assets, they don't have the overhead imagery, they don't have the communications, they don't have the logistics support, they don't have the backing to do this now.

What they want is the opportunity to show an increasing degree of autonomy by the Iraqi government to end any specter of occupation among the Iraqi people. And there are also groups in Iraq who want us to stay there.

So we're going to have to work our way very carefully through this, getting the balance right. We don't want to destabilize -- and I'm sure the president doesn't want to destabilize the situation over there. And I think he's going to, as Jack said, he's going to listen very carefully to the advisers.

I think the Iraqi security forces are going to be a major point of emphasis and something that's watched very, very closely as we move forward.

Advising the new president

MARGARET WARNER: Also in this meeting, General Keane, today with President Obama were not only General Odierno, but, of course, Defense Secretary Gates and General Petraeus, the head of all U.S. forces in that region.

What do you know of their attitude or views of the Obama campaign pledge, in any event and, also, how the top -- all the top military brasses in general feel about that going into this?

GEN. JACK KEANE: Well, the general view is, is that they're going to provide the president with the best advice they can, lay out what the risks are associated with different options, and certainly support whatever decision he has. And that's not lip service. They truly believe that. That's number one.

Two, given the hard-fought gains that we have made in Iraq over a strategy that was failing for three years and a very dramatic turnaround in 18 months, and now we have an Arab-Muslim state that elects its government and is allied with the United States and wants a political relationship with us, and not with the Iranians in terms of being an ally, that is a major plus for us.

No one wants to squander those gains. And that would be their concern. And force reduction is certainly an issue that's on the table that they have concern about.

MARGARET WARNER: General Clark, we're almost out of time, but, briefly, do you think that will be their concern? What do you think their advice will be?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Yes, I think that they will lay out the risks. I think they're very conscious of those risks, because both General Petraeus and General Odierno have been there and worked through this for years, and they have seen what the consequences are of flawed decisions and how things can go right when you make better decisions.

So they're going to lay out these risks very clearly. They don't want to squander those gains, but it's up to the president himself to make the decision. He's the one who has to look at the overall objectives of U.S. foreign policy, balancing diplomacy and military force and other problems, like the need for troops in Afghanistan.

So this is going to be a major and continuing issue that the administration is going to work.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you, General Wesley Clark, General Jack Keane. Thank you both.

GEN. JACK KEANE: Thank you.