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When Iraq War Ends, How Many Troops Will Stay?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

While debate continues on the way ahead in Afghanistan, most, and maybe all, U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year. The Iraqi government is reported to be talking about an agreement to keep 20,000 Americans for one more year, though tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad last week to protest any extension of the U.S. military presence. More on that in a moment.

Whatever the decision, it's clear that America's war in Iraq is almost entirely in the past now. So we want to talk with veterans of that conflict today and with their families. How will remember the war in Iraq? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

In just a little bit, we'll speak with the New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan about a piece he wrote asking where's the tickertape parade for Iraq veterans?

Later in the program, Stephen Walt on The Opinion Page, on the size and character of the post-Iraq U.S. military. But first, Tim Arango joins us. He's home in Vermont, on leave from his post as the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. And Tim Arango, thanks very much for taking time on your holiday to be with us.

Mr. TIM ARANGO (Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times): It's my pleasure, glad to be here.

CONAN: Do the Iraqi people want a continued American presence?

Mr. ARANGO: You know, it depends, of course, on who you ask. The most vocal opposing it are the loyalists to Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, and I think his opposition and his threat to, you know, to wage violence again if they stay has, you know, forced a lot of other Iraqis, who may have been inclined to see Americans stay to help the Iraqi security forces, you know, oppose it now because they worry about more, you know, more insurgent violence. So it's a very politically dicey problem, right now.

CONAN: And not only did Muqtada al-Sadr call thousands of his supporters out into the streets, there was a vow that if the Americans did stay, if there was another deal, they would return to violence.

Mr. ARANGO: Yeah, he - a few - several weeks ago, he came out and very vocally said he would reconstitute his Mahdi Army and hit the streets again should the Americans stay.

And of course, the Mahdi Army was his militia that played a very huge part in the sectarian violence of '06 and '07 and also waged, you know, several battles against American troops and Iraqi troops.

At the same time, you know, a lot of people, you know, a lot of people believe it's a bluff, and a lot of people say that he would have no chance with the, you know, fighting the Iraqi security forces today. The last time he did so was in 2008, and they've - you know, they're much improved.

And at the same time, al-Sadr is now part of the political process, part of the coalition with Prime Minister Maliki.

CONAN: How many Sadrists are in the Iraqi parliament?

Mr. ARANGO: It's roughly 40, and Sadr's decision to back Maliki, you know, after many, many months of a stalemate last year, you know, is the key event in giving Maliki a second term as prime minister. So he's sort of caught between his military and, you know, pressure from the Americans that say: Look at the Iraqi security forces. They're not ready to control the country on their own.

So he's getting that advice from the military advisors and the experts, and then on the other side, his has this huge political problem because he has his coalition partner, who he arguably wouldn't be a prime minister again, this time, saying, you know, they have to leave. They have to leave, or I'm going to turn to violence again.

CONAN: And in the meantime, there are, what, about 50,000 Americans still left?

Mr. ARANGO: It's about 46,000, 47,000 American troops there today, and it's -you know, it's good to talk about it today, especially on Memorial Day. It's largely the - you know, sort of the forgotten conflict for Americans. But they - there are still nearly 50,000 troops, and they're still dying, you know, and people don't always understand that.

CONAN: The level of violence is down, but yes, American troops are still dying.

Mr. ARANGO: Absolutely, and the real worry right now is with the withdrawal. You know, the American military is very worried about an uptick in attacks, and I think we've seen that through the last several weeks in terms of rocket attacks and IEDs on troops, particularly in the south and particularly on the major supply route to Kuwait, where all the convoys will, you know, be leaving during the draw-down.

CONAN: There was also a great deal of concern about the situation in Anbar Province, where arguably the conflict turned around five years ago, the Sons of Ramadi and then the Sons of Anbar, that the Sunni sheiks who went out on a limb and changed sides and fought al-Qaeda on the American side will be stranded politically with the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Mr. ARANGO: Yeah, an argument that's happened, I did a piece last year after the elections, and they had - you know, the sheiks and the Awakening members, they had always had this hope that - you know, by switching sides and supporting the Americans that eventually that would lead to political power. But none of the major Awakening figures, you know, won seats in parliament.

So they've been feeling alienated for a while, you know, and at the same time, they were promised a lot of jobs by the government, and they haven't received those jobs, and so they feel like, you know, people haven't lived up to their promises. And so that's been an ongoing concern.

And the American military is actually still heavily involved in trying to make sure that these guys have, you know, have a bright future.

CONAN: More broadly, what is the economic situation? Is unemployment still as huge as it has been for the past eight or nine years?

Mr. ARANGO: Yeah, unemployment is still a huge issue. I don't have the figures on the top of my head. The other issue, too, is that there's - there hadn't been this development of a private sector. The numbers I'd see, it's still around 60 percent of the people still, you know, work for the government in some form.

And the real aspiration, when you talk to Iraqis, is to get a government job. There's not that same sort of aspiration we have of starting a business, entrepreneurship and that kind of thing. They still feel that the plum assignment is to get a job, you know, with the government.

And a lot of that has to do with the lack of foreign investment. Obviously there is some, but the Americans are certainly not taking the lead in that regard because it's just still too violent.

CONAN: Including in the oil sector, in which Iraq could be making a lot of money.

Mr. ARANGO: It could be, and hopefully one day it will, but that's the ongoing conundrum. And just for me in coming to cover this place for the last - you know, I was there the last several months, and I was there for six months last year, but this is the country that supposedly has the and does have the second-largest oil reserves.

And, you know, you'll be driving on these roads up north, and to get gas, it's kids on the side of the street with a jerrycan, you know. It'll take a while for the, you know, for the right level investment and to rid that sector of corruption. And also, you know, violence is still a big problem in the oil sector. You'll see some of the pipelines bombed from time to time.

CONAN: And just remind us. What is it, most of the time, that most of the American military still in Iraq, what do they do?

Mr. ARANGO: They mainly - you don't see them out and about, especially in Baghdad. It's very, very rare if you see American vehicles out in the streets in Baghdad.

They're mainly at their bases. They're mainly advising. They - training the police, which is a task that they will turn over to the State Department very soon. And they are, you know, training the Iraqi officers and training the Iraqi army.

Behind the scenes, or outside of the spotlight, they still do counterterrorism operations. And so American Special Forces are still very active there, you know, almost daily with raids in partnership with the Iraqi special forces.

The Americans take a backseat now, and most things are largely in the hands of Iraqis these days there.

CONAN: Secretary Gates, who of course retires next month, but he has said if we're going to stay beyond the end of this year, we're going to have to have a request from the Iraqi government for that pretty soon. Any idea of what's the drop-dead date?

Mr. ARANGO: You know, it's funny, when you talk to the military commanders, they'll say, and they'll remark, and it's been a trend throughout the war. Like, the Iraqis march to a different time than the Americans do, and there really is no drop-dead deadline.

And I guess the drop-dead deadline is December 31st because I think - which is a bit of an exaggeration, but I think as they're planning the drawdown, they will always have these contingencies, the American military to leave X amount of troops should the Iraqis finally, you know, make this request.

CONAN: Well, Tim Arango, thanks very much for your time today, and again, we appreciate taking time away from your break to talk with us.

Mr. ARANGO: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Tim Arango is the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, with us on home leave there in Vermont. Joining us now from the studios of the Radio Foundation - and by the way, we want to hear from veterans of the Iraq war today. How will we remember this war, as much of it, most of it, almost all of it now, goes into our past?

Will there parades? Will there be memorials? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And joining us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York is Lawrence Kaplan, a contributing editor at the New Republic, who wrote the piece "Where Is the Tickertape Parade?" for that magazine, and nice to have you with us today.

Mr. LAWRENCE KAPLAN (Contributing Editor, New Republic): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And clearly you think it's time to have a parade through the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan?

Mr. KAPLAN: I think why not? It's been seven years. The war is wrapping up. I think by the end of the year, the time will be due. And so I thought to myself: Why haven't there been any parades, any great homecomings in the Canyon of Heroes, where we have well-paid athletes every year feted? Why not have the troops who sacrificed so much in Iraq?

And the best I could come up with is Americans are profoundly ambivalent about the war, and it's also extremely unclear whether we've actually won the war or not. It's just too soon to tell.

And I think for most Americans, the thing is just too foggy and imprecise. On the one hand, we have a clear and, to my mind, unambiguous military victory, but we also have, as Tim described, an extremely chronically unsettled political landscape in Iraq, which is to American forces accomplished a necessary requisite for peace in Iraq but not a sufficient one, which has to happen in the realm of politics.

And that's a realm, for better or worse, that the Iraqis control now, and where frankly they tend to make a hash of things. So we're in a bit of an interlude here. You might call it act two. You might liken it, if you're a pessimist, to the years between 1973 and 1975 in the Vietnam War; if you're an optimist, to Iraq only a few years ago, when my colleagues and I all thought the war was lost.

But I think the second and more troubling problem, as I was thinking through, that I actually got to thinking through the logistics of a parade and how would one get tickertape in 2011, but I think the problem is people not only don't understand, they don't care.

And this is why I think a proper homecoming would first and last do something to bridge the gap between soldier and civilian, a gap that I really think not only the distance between here and Iraq can fully measure.

Today, we have this thoroughly professionalized, all-volunteer military that functions as an expeditionary force, constantly deployed, technologically sophisticated, and we, whether coordinating with air support on the radio nets, establishing bases of fire, maneuvering through the streets, watching these guys and gals is really like watching, you know, a master cellist.

But you get these cascading generations of officers and non-commissioned officers living in what one writer has rightly called the military tribe, completely cut off from the society they defend.

CONAN: We're talking with Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic, a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College. We want to hear from veterans of the war in Iraq. How should we remember that conflict? How will we remember it in coming years? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Earlier this month, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to the soldiers and their families as they gathered for graduation at West Point.

After congratulating the class of 2011 and tossing a barb toward Annapolis, his tone became more serious. Our work is appreciated by American citizens, he assured the soldiers, but he said I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.

And as that class of cadets graduated, many of those who went before them, a million are home from Iraq, where the U.S. presence is winding down.

Veterans, family members of veterans, give us a call. How will remember the war in Iraq? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation by going to our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Lawrence Kaplan, a contributing editor to the New Republic and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, and let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Dan(ph) calls us, Dan's on the line from Fort Riley in Kansas.

DAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Dan, you're on the air, go ahead.

DAN: Thank you. Yeah, the best way I would feel that it would be remembered would be to put up a memorial in Washington with the other memorials that are already there.

CONAN: A memorial to the, what, 5,000 or so dead?

DAN: Exactly, and to tell you the truth, I think having a separate one away from the Afghanistan war would be even better. I could see them grouping an Afghanistan and an Iraqi war, the whole war on terror into one memorial. I think those two fights are individual, and they should be remembered that way.

CONAN: And distinct, did you serve in both?

DAN: Yes, I have.

CONAN: And, well, we're glad your name will be on neither.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAN: Yeah, so am I, believe me.

CONAN: I bet you are. Do you agree with Lawrence Kaplan's idea for a parade?

DAN: Actually, I would not. There's a large percentage of these people like me that has gone from conflict to conflict. You know, I've gone four times in total to both of those.

If somebody were to come and say that we need a parade, they're going to assign that to some unit with people just coming back from the war that would just as soon spend Memorial Day with their family and loved ones instead of having to be organized, shipped over to a different state, spending time away from the family to walk - and walk down a city street with people who just don't understand how valuable these people's times are.

CONAN: All right, Dan. Go ahead, Lawrence Kaplan.

Mr. KAPLAN: If I could, Neal, I have thought through the memorial idea myself and ran into a legislative wall, which is to say one has to wait 10 years, according to congressional legislation, after a conflict officially ends before a memorial can be commissioned.

Second - and as to the caller's concern about a parade, a parade response to multiple needs, as such, not only the military's, the civilians' as well, the citizens of this country, be they military or civilian.

And I think we have to keep in mind here that there really is this goal and that the flipside of the military's sacrifice is that the citizen-soldier is gone and forever.

And so I think there is a need for some kind of reconciliation or some kind of ceremony where civilians won't merely be spectators but actually participants, side by side, with those serving in uniform.

You know, it's funny, a few nights ago, I was flipping through John Updike's "Rabbit at Rest" a few days ago. I'm not sure if you've read the Rabbit series. I'm sure many of your listeners have.

And at one point, Rabbit says something very telling. He says: Without the Cold War, what's the point of being an American? Well, his question, which he posed I think this is probably about 20 years ago, I think really anticipated something in the national mood today, at least as it relates to the military.

The fact is the war on terrorism, at least in President Bush's telling, required something like mass demobilization. The fact is very few Americans have any role in these wars. The ordinary American has been assigned the role of spectator, and if surveys tell us anything, that suits him just fine.

So for instance, making Memorial Day into a three-day weekend is in its own way very apropos. It's the subordination of the public good to private wants, and that's the signature of our time, and I think it's very troubling.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call, and we hope - are you spending time with your family today?

DAN: No, actually, I didn't. I spent this three-day weekend and spent time with them, and I'm on the road back to Fort Riley. So one thing I'd like to comment about, that the citizens do have a chance to participate in this, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the biggest things that we saw that really lifted the spirits were the packages that we received. There's numerous websites out there that allow you, as a citizen, to send, you know, even simple things like toiletries and whatever else you feel is appropriate to these soldiers.

In a way, that's a way to participate. And the other thing is that with the more coverage from the news, the more the people are aware of what's happening. As the war has got older, the coverage has slowed down greatly, and I think that's a big part of it, too.

CONAN: All right, Dan, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

DAN: Have a good day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Corey(ph), Corey with us from Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

COREY (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Corey, go ahead.

COREY: Well, I was just commenting on your past comments about whether to have a parade or not, and I would think certainly because there's a certain nostalgic part that my generation - I'm 35 years old - has either reminisced about or heard about with the Greatest Generation and that type of thing, you know, seeing photographs, so...

CONAN: The parades after the Second World War.

COREY: Sure, of course. You know, the famous photograph, the kiss and all those type of things. We kind of long or that. We really look up to that generation as a soldier because the hardships they went through are not necessarily anywhere close to what we have gone through two times to Iraq and I definitely not - lived in more comfort than they did.

CONAN: And so it's time for a parade, you think?

COREY: Oh, sure, why not? I mean, it's for the country, the spark with the economy the way it is, the longing for a more simpler life, kind of getting back to that 1950s mentality of, you know, take care of yourself, take care of your family, live within your means kind of has all kind of come into a new hip thing to do.

CONAN: Come into focus. I wanted to - the parade that Lawrence Kaplan mentioned in his piece, and I'll get his comment in a minute, but to you, there was a big parade, of course, after the Persian Gulf War, the 100-hour War, when U.S. troops were victorious, and there was a great parade in New York City.

COREY: Well, I was - I wasn't aware of that. I was probably, you know, pretty young at that age and wasn't necessarily aware of the news. But yes, I mean, why not? There's no reason not to. But I think it would be hard to gather, you know, whose soldiers and who goes, and who doesn't go. But...

CONAN: Well, that's logistics. The military is good at logistics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COREY: Yeah, the Army is definitely good at that.

CONAN: Okay, Corey, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it, bye-bye. And yes, Lawrence Kaplan, you did mention the great parade after the first Persian Gulf War but none this time around.

Mr. KAPLAN: No, none this time around, and I think - I mean, as to the first caller's logistical concerns, the war in Iraq really is wrapping up. So I don't think, at least by the end of the year, it would be premature to have some sort of parade.

And you mentioned the parade after the Gulf War, which in many ways was - which I remember quite vividly. It was a very noisy, celebratory, even ostentatious procession, and I see no reason why that can't be repeated regardless of what you think of the war, regardless even of if you think the war has been won or not, just to provide what I guess in the contemporary parlance, some closure to the Iraq War and some acknowledgement of the incredible, incredible sacrifices that the soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors made in Iraq, which are really impossible to convey to a civilian public.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Johnson(ph) in Fort Myers: In 2003, I was deployed with the Army for OIF One and Two, Operation Iraqi Freedom. When this topic comes up with most civilians, I receive looks as if people are sorry for me.

When I first came home, I tried to explain the many humanitarian missions we conducted to help the Iraqi people. This was my way of justifying our presence there, both for who I spoke with and myself.

As time as passed, I try my best to avoid any mention of my service in Iraq. I am both ashamed and proud of the Iraq war, ashamed because of why and how it began, and proud that I was able to serve with some of the best men and women this country has to offer.

And the ambiguity in that email, Lawrence Kaplan, it speaks to the ambiguous feelings many Americans have about the conflict.

Prof. KAPLAN: Well, I think so. And I think this - the observation that American soldiers inhabited a different world from(ph) the Iraqis around them has really become a cliche of their time. But their remove from own society I think should really worry us. And I think part of the product of that remove is a skewed image of the American soldier. I think in the popular imagination it veers back and forth from viewing soldiers as hapless victims, at one extreme, at the other poll is brutal predators, or as many soldiers view themselves, as the custodian of really what's virtuous about this country. And that too is really a worrisome development.

CONAN: Verges on Praetorian.

Prof. KAPLAN: Absolutely. And the email is - troubles me. It reminds me of the Vietnam era cliche. And I'm surprised that the mailer would be embarrassed about his service in Iraq.

CONAN: Let's go next to David, David with us from Pennsylvania.

DAVID (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thanks for doing this show today.

CONAN: Thank you for calling.

DAVID: Yes. I just wanted to say, when I came back from Iraq and arrived in Dallas, Texas from an airplane, there was a fire truck shooting water cannons over the plane, kind of a forming arch of celebration. There were hundreds and hundreds of people at the airport, just civilians that were there to greet us and cheer for us and just made a - I mean, this overwhelming emotion. I didn't expect anyone to be there cheering for us. And that was sort of my victory parade. And then seeing my kids when I got back to Fort Hood, Texas was all I needed. But, of course, I'd like to see a parade in New York City as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, David. And are you still in the military?

DAVID: Yes, sir. I'm - yes.

CONAN: So are you looking forward to a tour in Afghanistan?

DAVID: I was in Iraq in 2006 and that's when I deployed and came back. And now I worked in an Army hospital.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. Appreciate it.


CONAN: Many flights back from Iraq and Afghanistan have been greeted with cheers and applauses as the soldiers and sailors and airmen walk off the plane. There are also, as Lawrence Kaplan points out in his piece in The New Republic, memorials that have been set up by the units that fought there. No memorial as yet. Legislation requires a waiting period here in Washington, D.C.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Susan, and Susan is calling us from Fort Benning in Georgia.

SUSAN (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

SUSAN: I just wanted to say that while we think about the things like parades and the greetings to the guys when they come back home, that one thing that strikes me as really important is being able to mend some of the damage that's been done to the soldiers' families while they've been gone. My husband has spent five of the last two years in Iraq and we are the minority in that we've been able to hold our marriage together. The horror stories of how relationships and families have fallen apart is often forgotten. And a celebration when the guys first get home is really great. But despite everything that the Army is doing, and they're doing probably a lot more than in previous wars, the families are really paying for this, the families of the soldiers.

CONAN: It's one of the things we may not understand. We civilians may not understand about the sacrifices that are involved.

SUSAN: Well, I mean, just - you know, anything from when my son broke his arm and dad couldn't be there to any number of emergencies that are difficult to deal with - with only one person is there. And then you add to that the stress of not knowing how they are or, you know, not knowing when it is that you're going to hear from them again. Things like, you know, there's phone and email now, so we have it so much better than in previous wars. But when I'm talking to him on the phone and can hear mortars blowing in the background and then the phone goes dead and I don't hear from him for three days because they've been on blackout, you know, even when I found out he's okay, there's still some stresses and stresses to the family that are not adequately addressed.

CONAN: Susan, thank you very much. I wanted to add this we have from Lauren in Lansing, Michigan: My husband is currently serving his second tour in Iraq, first with the Navy, 2007, this time with the Army. As the spouse of a deployed soldier, I see the Iraq War as a waste of life, money and time over the last 10 years. We live in a nation where the average citizen doesn't seem to realize on a conscious level that we are at war and that many service members are dying, leaving behind devastated families.

So Susan, thanks very much, echoing your point. Let's see if we can go next to Jim, and Jim is with us from Boston.

JIM (Caller): Hi, guys. I just want to, you know, repeat what everyone else says, obviously agree with everyone. I was in Iraq twice, Afghanistan once. I just came back last month. And I'm on the civil affairs side, so I do a lot of the reconstruction and a lot of the humanitarian. And I'm sure Professor Kaplan knows this well. We do a lot of great things for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, but we're doing something called the Marshal Plan in regards to rebuilding both of those countries. And I think that applied back in Germany in World War II, in that timeframe.

But the Department of State, USAID and the great folks over there working with us to try and reconstruct those countries - I'm sorry to say, we got a lot of waste of money because it seems to me that a lot of the - you know, a lot of the locals in those, both of those countries, all they're interested in, it seems to be, is money and contracts. They're really not interested in helping their fellow man, like the Germans I think are today in the war back then. It's a different take on things.

As a civil affairs officer, I saw many different things. And unfortunately, you know, we're trying to push money on them all the time to reconstruct things that either they don't want or they don't need. But there's a focus in Congress to spend X amount of dollars so we find ways to do it.

CONAN: And how will we remember this conflict in future years, do you think, Jim?

JIM: Honestly, to be honest with you, I think the general public will not remember - if you ask the general public right now about Grenada, they will have no clue what you're talking about. I fear that the same thing will be in Iraq, especially if we don't have a parade or some sort of celebration, because it's very hard to define if we won or not for the reasons you guys already stated.

So there is no victory lap that you can per se point to like there was at the end of World War II, or you know, unfortunately Korea and Vietnam really weren't big victories. But I don't think most of the public will remember it as victorious, so(ph) to remember maybe a humanitarian - or a global war on terrorism is a part of a process, not really a victory per se.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call, and we appreciate your time. Lawrence Kaplan, Jim, I think, got the last word, but I think you're going to happy leaving it with him. Thank you very much for your time today too.

Prof. KAPLAN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Lawrence Kaplan, a contributing editor to The New Republic, a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College. He joined us from the Radio Foundation in New York. Coming up on the Opinion Page, Steve Walt on the future of the American military - smaller and less influential, he says. Stay with us. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.