Gates defends Iraq withdrawal plan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only cabinet holdover from the Bush Administration, on Sunday defended President Barack Obama’s strategy for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Obama has set a firm date for ending military action, declaring on Friday, “Let me say this as plainly as I can: by Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.” But the timing of the withdrawal and his decision to leave as many as 50,000 troops in that country have drawn criticism from ranks within his own party. “I don’t know what the justification is for 50,000, a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday. “I do think that there’s a need for some. I don’t know that all of them have to be in country.”

Gates, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” sought to allay concerns from Pelosi and the majority leader Senator Harry Reid among others. When pressed how the administration came up with the number 50,000 for the remaining troops, Gates responded that the figure came from a dialogue with the joint chiefs and their chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, commanders in the field and the president.

“So having a somewhat larger residual, or transition, force, mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner,” Gates said. “The important thing to point out, though, is that the president has said there will be a transition force of 35,000 to 50,000. We, as he pointed out in the absence of any new agreement with the Iraqis, have to be at zero by the end of 2011. So, that 50,000 or 35,000 is a way-station on the way to zero.”

There are currently 142,000 American troops in Iraq.

Gates emphasized that the nature of the new Iraq mission would shift from combat and to such peacekeeping missions as “training, assistance, advisory roles” with a “limited counterterrorism aspect.” He said that the remaining forces, who would no longer be called “combat troops” but rather “advisory and assistance brigades,” would be consolidated to a limited number of bases to mitigate risk.

Their goal will be to assist with the transition to Iraqi-controlled forces, who are scheduled to take over at the end of 2011.

He admitted that while political progress had been made in Iraq, there is more work to be done. “The military side is a work in progress,” Gates.

“When the United States finally leaves Iraq, will it have achieved victory?” The host, David Gregory, asked.

“Those are the things that historians will have to judge,” Gates replied.

He said he did not plan to step down soon but admitted that lasting through Obama’s first term would be a “challenge.”

When questioned about the differences in working with the two presidents, Gates said, “That sounds like the subject of a good book.”