SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with Iraq Study Group director 'Current Troop Levels Cannot Be Maintained'

US security expert Dan Serwer spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about his long-term vision for Iraq. The director of the Iraq Study Groups says he doesn't expect any big breakthrough from General Petraeus' report to Congress on Monday but thinks that a partial withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is inevitable.

US soldiers return to their combat outpost following a night patrol on the outskirts of Baghdad.

US soldiers return to their combat outpost following a night patrol on the outskirts of Baghdad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton Commission) recommended a drastic troop withdrawal starting in 2008, President George W. Bush didn't want to listen. Now everyone in Washington is only talking about withdrawal. Were you right after all?

Dan Serwer: The politicians have come to the realization that the troops have to be withdrawn. We just don't have enough soldiers, and those that we do have are overstretched. Starting in April, we have to bring back home one brigade -- about 4,000 soldiers -- every month for a period of about six months. Otherwise we won't be able to adhere to the prescribed deployment times of the soldiers and we will have to procure a gigantic new resource package for the war in Congress. And whoever thinks that can happen, believes in Santa Claus, too.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So, do you think that General Petraeus, the man in charge in Iraq, will advocate a troop withdrawal when he delivers his situation report before Congress today?

Serwer: The radical options that are sometimes discussed are not at all seriously part of the equation. No one can really want a complete withdrawal. That would lead to the end of the Iraqi government and to chaos in Iraq. At the same time, nobody can want our troop strength to stay at 160,000. We need to at least get below 130,000. The real question is whether we will already be in a position to begin the withdrawal in April and whether that turns out to be more than a brigade a month for six months. General Petraeus's recommendations will probably also range between these parameters.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What number would you recommend?

Serwer: The Iraq Study Group didn't express an opinion about this issue either. Numbers really aren't that important. It's really more about re-defining the purpose of the mission: moving away from combat troops and toward a policing role, while the Iraqis assume more and more responsibility. At that point, the number of solders can be reduced to between 60,000 and 80,000.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how long would those soldiers remain?

Serwer: We're talking about years here. When you are talking about a strategy following an invasion like the one in Iraq, you always have to talk in terms of years and not in months.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Bush administration and a number of Republicans have a new sense of hope. They say that the most recent rise in troop levels has brought success.

Serwer: If that's the case, then we shouldn't have any problems withdrawing soldiers. Even I see some positive developments: We've succeeded in shifting the violence somewhat to the periphery. There's been progress in important regions like Anbar province, especially because the Sunnis there have realized that the Americans are their best protectors. But there are also regions in which the violence has not abated. In our report at the end of last year, we called the situation in Iraq "bleak" and "deteriorating." I would still describe it as bleak but as no longer getting worse everywhere.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the upcoming election, each political camp in Washington will be drawing its own conclusions.

Serwer: American domestic politics is just as unpredictable as any military strategy. But there is a certain consensus forming in Washington that things will last a number of more years in Iraq and that, for this reason, current troop levels cannot be maintained. Don't forget that a world power like the USA bears global responsibilities. The burden in Iraq might make it harder for us to live up to those responsibilities. We have already reduced our troops in Germany, in South Korea and in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, our army is standing on its last legs.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of your most important recommendations in December was to enter into dialogue with Iraq's neighbors, such as Iran and Syria. So far, the Bush administration has largely dismissed this recommendation. Will that change?

Serwer: Not under this administration. If you want to speak with countries like Iran or Syria, you have to prepare the framework. I haven't seen that yet. We still behave toward Iran as if the nuclear issue was still our only priority. And when it comes to Syria, we refuse to make justifiable concessions like a new dialogue about the Golan Heights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In his appearance today, will General Petraeus refer to the recommendations of last year's Iraq Study Group?

Serwer: Maybe. The recommendations, which arose from five very high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, has in the meantime become a sort of symbol for bipartisan thinking. Everyone thinks back on it fondly.

The interview was conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz.


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