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The U.S. Plans To Reduce Troops In Iraq

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

U.S. military officials today announced a further reduction in American troops in Iraq. Currently, the U.S. has about 5,200 troops there. That number is now expected to drop to 3,000 by the end of the year. For more, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and international correspondent Jane Arraf in Amman, Jordan.

And Tom, let's start with you. What is the significance of this news on the Defense Department side?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You know, Sacha, it's not all that significant. The president campaigned on reducing troops, of course, and he's been telegraphing troop cuts in Iraq for weeks, if not months. General Frank McKenzie, the top general overseeing operations in the region, says with that reduced number, the Americans can still train Iraqis and go after the remnants of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

By the way, we were told two years ago by Pentagon officials that they expected to keep 3,000 to 5,000 troops in Iraq for some time, maybe years. So it sounds like the president is taking that advice. Now, of course, many will say this has more to do with an upcoming election than national security, but such a move by a president is really not that unusual. President Obama cut troops by more than 20,000 in Afghanistan in September 2012 when he was running for reelection.

PFEIFFER: And Jane, let's talk about the significance in Iraq. What can you tell us about what U.S. troops are now doing there and how this news might affect that?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: So a lot of those numbers - the 5,000 - is force protection 'cause it takes a lot of military personnel to protect those advisers who are actually advising Iraqi forces. And they're not doing so much training because most of that is being done by U.S. coalition partners. And one of the things with this announcement we're seeing - countries, including Germany, saying they'll also draw down since they rely on the U.S. And they've made pretty clear all along they won't be able to stay in the numbers they're at now if the U.S. draws down.

So a lot of the assistance there was - that was U.S. commanders basically assisting and advising officer to officer with Iraqi officers to help them plan and execute anti-ISIS operations. So we should also keep in mind they've been consolidating for a while, moving out of bases. And they'll tell you that's because they're no longer needed there, but it's also because they've been attacked regularly by Iran-backed militias. General McKenzie, who announced the drawdown, referred to it. He said over the last few months they've had to devote resources to self-protection that they would otherwise devote for the counter-ISIS fight. So that's pretty telling.

PFEIFFER: And Jane, how is the troop reduction likely to be viewed by Iraqis?

ARRAF: Well, definitely some Iraqis, along with political parties and militias - and a lot of those are Iran-backed - they will see this as a victory. You'll recall that the U.S. launched a drone strike in January that killed a top Iranian commander and a senior Iraqi official. And after that, the U.S. military presence became even more controversial in Iraq. So as Tom mentioned, more than a military issue, almost, the troop presence is a political one in Iraq. It's one of sovereignty.

And we have to note, too, that it isn't like Iraqis are seeing U.S. forces in the streets. So really, it's pretty much about politics. And by that token, this is good for the new Iraqi prime minister, as well as possibly for President Trump. Iraqi military commanders won't necessarily agree. They have welcomed the U.S. military assistance. They just don't say that so much in public.

PFEIFFER: Tom, as you mentioned, there have been pledges before to bring U.S. troops home. But there are still U.S. boots on the ground, and not just in Iraq - the wider region. Can you give us the current status of American troop presence in the wider region there?

BOWMAN: There are still about 6,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that number is expected to drop to 4,000. The big question for Afghanistan will be next spring. All troops are supposed to be out under the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The U.S. would like to keep a small number of troops for a counterterror mission, but that would have to be worked out.

As far as a wider region, Sacha, the U.S. has actually increased the troop presence since the spring because of the administration's concerns about Iran - so thousands more troops, aircraft of various countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - all this despite Trump's stated hopes to get out of the Middle East.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and international correspondent Jane Arraf.

Thanks to both of you.

ARRAF: Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.