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Violence Dips in Iraq, Fueling Talk of Troop Drawdowns

July 31, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Defense chief Robert Gates said Thursday that security in Iraq has "improved dramatically" and that he sees "a real possibility" of future troop cuts. Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., offer insight.
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MARGARET WARNER: The 18-month surge of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq was fully ended this month. And President Bush’s comments today were the latest in a round of statements from Washington and Baghdad suggesting a faster withdrawal of additional U.S. forces than was contemplated even a few weeks ago.

At his Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also expressed optimism for an additional drawdown.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I think that the situation has improved dramatically. And I would — I personally believe that there is a real possibility of some additional drawdowns as we look forward.

Well, I’ll leave it to General Petraeus to make recommendations in terms of what the sequencing and the timing would be.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on security in Iraq and the prospects for U.S. troop withdrawal, we turn to Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a member of Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees; and Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Welcome to you both.

As we just heard the president say, Sen. Lugar, that the security gains on the ground had a degree of durability that now made the prospect of further withdrawals look promising — that wasn’t his word — but do you share that assessment? Is that how you see it?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: Yes, I do. I think it was significant the president spoke on this stage July 31st, which was hopefully the time when we would have a status-of-forces agreement or a strategic situation with Iraq. That has not occurred.

But the president and Secretary Gates, both speaking on the same day, are talking now about irregular warfare in the future, about a future in which the surge has led at least to a lack of casualties, thank goodness, but even more importantly, confidence by the Shiite government that went after the Sadr situation, by Sunnis, who at least have gone after al-Qaida there, and I suppose a confluence of interests, in which the Iraqis are now asserting sovereignty for Iraq, indicating they would not like to have foreigners around for a long time, but prudently hoping that at least, if things got into trouble, there might be a few there.

And I think this degree of flexibility the president is setting the stage for is a very important announcement.

Violence in Afghanistan

Sen. James Webb
D-Va.
We've got the finest maneuver forces in the world tied down on the streets and in the cities of one country, when the people that we're supposed to be going after and were supposed to be going after are the forces of international terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Webb, do you share the president's assessment? And do you agree there's sort of a confluence here that's pointing to a more rapid withdrawal?

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: Well, I think there is a confluence. And part of it had to do with the increase in the numbers that we've come to call the surge.

Part of it was forces that were already in play before the surge was announced, particularly in Al Anbar, where the Sunni Awakening predated the surge by several months.

But the most important thing I think we need to look at is that we are in a strategically imbalanced situation and we have been now for five years. We've got the finest maneuver forces in the world tied down on the streets and in the cities of one country, when the people that we're supposed to be going after and were supposed to be going after are the forces of international terrorism, and they've retained their mobility and in large part re-centered themselves over in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

And so the situation that we're supposed to be addressing strategically is still hampered by the fact that we have so many forces tied down in the sectarian situation in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just follow up with you, Sen. Webb. Secretary Gates has said consistently -- and he said again today -- that moving forces or sending more forces to Afghanistan can't happen until Iraq is secure. Do you agree with that judgment? Are you saying it's time to happen now?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: I don't know that he said that. What I understood him to have said was that the situation in Iraq was going to be dealt with separately from the situation in Afghanistan. I would agree with that.

I just think that we should be able to withdraw our forces in a much more rapid way from Iraq, not necessarily to go to Afghanistan. We need an enunciation of a very clear strategy with respect to the future in Afghanistan that we have not seen.

But Sen. Lugar mentioned something which I think is vitally important and that is that there is a strategic framework moving forward that I believe should have the participation of the Congress. And it has been taking place between this administration and the Maliki government without our direct participation. I think that's dangerous to the Constitution.

Shifting the U.S. operation in Iraq

Sen. Richard Lugar
R-Ind.
[Gates] was talking about irregular fighting and really soft power and the utilization of our troops in a more sophisticated way for training. This is a very different thing than a massive, 150,000-troop operation.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Lugar, do you agree with Sen. Webb that the U.S. is in a strategically unbalanced situation right now, vis-a-vis the war on terrorism and other matters?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Yes, I think that that's a good point. And I think, without getting into the politics of the campaign and the assertions made by candidates about this, the fact is that the military commanders have been telling all of us for some time that our Armed Forces are stretched, that the requirements in Afghanistan or anywhere else, for that matter, are hard to meet, that, as a matter of fact, we really need some repair of our equipment and our supplies to support the troops.

We need clearly what the president now reiterated again, the 12-month period of service as opposed to an extended 15 or surprises of that sort for our men in the country.

So as a result I think, you know, we're moving in with Secretary Gates a new period. About three years ago, when there was another strategic announcement, we were talking then, as the Defense Department, about strategic war, about pre-emptive war on some occasions.

Today he was talking about irregular fighting and really soft power and the fact -- utilization of our troops in a more sophisticated way for training, for specific raids on al-Qaida cells. This is a very different thing than a massive, 150,000-troop operation.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you suggesting that -- you're saying that this kind of operation we've had in Iraq is a thing of the past?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, I think it is with regard to al-Qaida and to the extent that Secretary Gates centered on al-Qaida as the problem.

This doesn't indicate that Hamas, Hezbollah, various other organizations in the Middle East don't from time to time create terror accidents, but al-Qaida has been the group that plotted against the United States before 9/11, may be still plotting something more.

But the fact is trying to go after them requires taking a look where they are. And principally they are in Pakistan and Afghanistan and, from time to time, maybe shifting across the border.

So if that's the case, then you have to take a look at what kind of operations are going to be suitable. And the negotiations or talks with the prime minister of Pakistan reveal they have a question of sovereignty, too, not a question the United States operating in Pakistan in any such way as we have in Afghanistan or Iraq.

So this, on the face of it, requires a different strategic thinking.

Facing a new enemy

Sen. James Webb
D-Va.
The enemy that confronts us in the most direct way right now are the forces of international terrorism, including al-Qaida, and you don't address that specific enemy by occupying forces and getting involved in sectarian violence in one country.

MARGARET WARNER: And just sticking with Afghanistan for one more minute, Sen. Webb, were you suggesting you're not so sure more troops are needed there, but a different approach?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, let me -- let's back up into the situation you mentioned with Iraq. I wouldn't say that necessarily that the way we went into Iraq is a thing of the past.

I think it was something that we shouldn't have done five years ago for the very reasons that Sen. Lugar is discussing, and that is that the enemy that we were supposed to be addressing and the enemy that confronts us in the most direct way right now are the forces of international terrorism, including al-Qaida, and you don't address that specific enemy by occupying forces and getting involved in sectarian violence in one country.

But we've got to be really careful now with respect to how we enunciate a strategy with respect to Afghanistan that shouldn't be sort of a quid pro quo.

And also we need to be careful in terms of what Secretary Gates was saying today when he talked about the strategic future being principally special operations-types of operations, because we made two strategic blunders in Iraq, in my view.

The first is that we tied down our ground forces, these great maneuver forces, into an occupation force in the middle of sectarian violence.

The other is that we lost the window on the larger strategic issues that confront us, whether it's an emerging China or the nuclear balance that we have around the world, those sorts of things.

So we can't simply focus on special operations in the future as our strategic objective in this nation. We need a national strategy with that as a component of it.

Determining the withdrawal pace

Sen. Richard Lugar
R-Ind.
It appears to me that in a bipartisan way we ought to be supporting very thoughtful and private negotiations and simply noting the troops are coming home, as orders are given.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Sen. Lugar, let me just return for a final question, though, on what should determine the pace of withdrawal in Iraq, because, despite the convergence or confluence that you both have identified between Baghdad and Washington, and so on, there is still some difference with the president continuing to say withdrawals will depend on conditions on the ground and others, including Prime Minister Maliki, seem to be looking for something more of a timeline-horizon frame.

What do you think should drive the pace of withdrawals?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I suspect that President Bush and the prime minister, Maliki, are really very close to the same recognition, that we should not announce day by day what we're going to do. No need for that.

But at the same time, we should recognize that there are going to be very sizable changes. Those are needed for Maliki for political purposes in Iraq and maybe by our president for political purpose in the United States. I think both have a confluence of interests in this situation, which comes out to something that's going to be flexible.

And my guess is that we're inclined, at least in partisan battles, to pin down whether it should be a 16-month situation, or whether it should be forever, or this type of thing. These are not going to be helpful elements right now.

It appears to me that in a bipartisan way we ought to be supporting very thoughtful and private negotiations and simply noting the troops are coming home, as orders are given.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Sen. Webb's final comment on that. Do you agree we are really...

SEN. JAMES WEBB: I would say that there are three different components that go into the discussion of withdrawal. The first is that this administration has blundered repeatedly in terms of how it has dealt diplomatically in the region.

The Baker-Hamilton Commission was very clear on this. We needed the type of national leadership that could have created a diplomatic umbrella and begun the withdrawals.

The second is that the Iraqis themselves may be driving the timing of our withdrawal.

And the third is that either new administration is going to have a chance to put the right diplomatic components in place.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Webb, Sen. Lugar, thank you both.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Thank you. Good to be with you.