Colin Powell talks Iraq in Aspen
ASPEN, Colorado ” Barack Obama or John McCain won’t have any choice but to reduce the number of troops in Iraq, despite what they say during the presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday.
The decision is being made for them because the U.S. military has been spread too thin, said Powell during a discussion about foreign policy at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
“The Armed Forces of the United States cannot sustain this level of deployment indefinitely,” said Powell, who was also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. He served as Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Powell said the next commander in chief will have to sit down with his military leader and top advisors and define a strategy that matches the inevitable “draw down” of troops. “I believe you have to make a judgment of what this, quote, winning or bringing it to a conclusion means” in Iraq,” he said.
Powell was paired with former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, a former Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the discussion on foreign policy. Nunn said he didn’t favor a deadline for pulling out troops, but he did feel a change in strategy is necessary. If he was the next president, he would want to complete the training of the Iraqi army and police force, protect the border from infiltration and encourage political reconciliation between factions in Iraq.
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“What we’re not going to do is continued to be involved in an urban civil war between religions,” he said.
Nunn has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Obama, but he downplayed any such expectations Thursday afternoon before a near-capacity crowd in the music tent.
Powell said the American public expects change in strategy in Iraq. If the “surge” of U.S. and Iraqi troops was effective in decreasing violence and if reconciliation proves effective, the U.S. public will expect a reduction of U.S. troops. If the surge didn’t work and reconciliation isn’t possible, the public will still expect a drawdown of troops.
“In either instance, the drawdown will continue and the burden will be increasingly placed on the Iraqi political leadership to get their act together and come to some level of reconciliation,” Powell said.
Powell and Nunn agreed that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is more troublesome. Iraq will resolve itself, Powell said. Some type of democracy will evolve, although it won’t be the type people having been “dreaming of,” he said.
In Afghanistan, lack of control of the border with Pakistan allows Al-Qaida and a regrouped Taliban to attack in a way that is difficult to handle, Powell said.
Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson, moderator of the discussion, asked if, in retrospect, the administration should have focused on Afghanistan after 9/11 rather than move on Iraq.
“One can make that argument,” Powell instantly responded, drawing big applause from the audience and a chuckle from Isaacson.
However, Powell added that the intelligence community, the Bush administration and the majority of Congress felt there was a threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, thus, supported military action. “I think there was a feeling in the administration, and it was probably premature, that Afghanistan was controlled,” Powell said.
Later in the discussion, Powell said the evolving global economy rather than terrorists or another country poses “the most powerful political force” facing the next president. China’s economic growth strategy, for example, will create a tremendous demand for oil and create incredible economic and environmental challenges for the U.S. and the world, Powell said.