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Powell: Thinning U.S. Resources Will Require Pullout

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, shown here in December 2006, says Iraq is a "boiling pot of sectarian stew" and that it is not sustainable for U.S. troops to stay there unless there is improvement in the Iraqi political situation.
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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, shown here in December 2006, says Iraq is a "boiling pot of sectarian stew" and that it is not sustainable for U.S. troops to stay there unless there is improvement in the Iraqi political situation.

Over the past several weeks, former Secretary of State Colin Powell has spoken with increasing openness about the nature of the war in Iraq, about what went wrong, and about the limitations of the current strategy.

Some time ago, Powell apologized for presenting an inaccurate case to the United Nations on Iraqi weapons.

Powell does not support congressional efforts to bring the troops home. But he tells Robert Siegel in an interview on Wednesday that troops will have to start coming home next year, because the military is stretched too thin.


In recent interviews, you've said that, given the lack of political progress in Baghdad, the surge of U.S. troops is only likely to hold the lid on something that will boil over just the same. Given that, right now, let's say if you had a vote in the U.S. Senate, would you support a resolution that said, let's change the mission, let's start getting out in a few months?

No, I would not do that. I think what's happening in the Senate now is interesting, but none of this legislation is going to pass, and I think we are in a position where you have to let Gen. David Petraeus [the top U.S. commander in Iraq] continue with his work and come back and report to us, but I will be more interested in what U.S. Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker has to say about the political situation.

The way I've characterized this is that we have a civil war that's taking place. Some people don't agree with it, but that's what I think it is, and our military troops can keep a lid on this boiling pot of sectarian stew, but the main attack, as I would say as an infantry officer, has to be Iraqi political progress, and it is not sustainable for our troops just to stay over there for an indefinite period at 180,000-person strength unless there is improvement in the conditions that generate what I consider to be a civil war. So we have to have progress on the Iraqi political side.

How much longer can the Army and the Marine Corps, for that matter, continue to do multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan?

I'm no longer in a position to make a definitive judgment, but my experience as somebody who used to have to deal with such matters is that they probably can't keep this up at this level past the middle of next year, I would guess. This is a tremendous burden on our troops and on our families and remember, it's the Army and the Marine Corps that are carrying this burden, and they have not been increased in size with these additional burdens that they are now carrying, and now that you've surged them and you've extended their tours to 15 months, do you have another group just as large ready to go in? And I think it's going to be hard to do that.


So regardless of what the votes are and the resolutions are, you would say, if your estimate is right, mid-2008, we're going to have to start bringing down the number of troops?

I think that's right, and I don't think I am inventing any new concept. You've heard it from our military leaders; you've heard it from civilian leaders in the Department of Defense. It is not sustainable for an indefinite period at this level.

I want you to take us back to the run-up to the war in Iraq. You've described a meeting in August 2002 with President Bush, two and a half hours where you outlined, as you saw them, the dangers of occupying an Arab country. On the other hand, when it was time to go to war in Iraq, you say you supported going to war. How do we get your role right? How do we best describe your position on the war?

Well, you've just described it. My job was to make sure the president took into consideration all of the issues that would be involved in a conflict in Iraq, and at that meeting, I laid out to him the problems we would face. We would have broken a civil government, and suddenly, we're not only the liberators, we're the occupiers, and under international law, we become the government, and that's going to be expensive, it's going to take a lot of our troops for a long period of time, and it would be a political burden for a number of years.

The president listened carefully. He asked me to brief his chief of staff and some others the next day, which I did, and he asked me how [we should] deal with this. And I said, let's take it to the United Nations — they are the offended party.... And I said, this may well mean that we change the nature of the regime so it is not a threat to us anymore, but we don't actually change the regime. Saddam Hussein might still be there.

You could have lived with Saddam Hussein, who would be controlled in some way.

Nobody wanted to live with Saddam Hussein, if it could be avoided, but the cost of removing him was going to be considerable, and so let's see if we can find a way through the U.N. to solve this problem. And we got a resolution. The resolution from the U.N. didn't say go to war; it said, let's see if we can get Saddam Hussein to comply with the resolutions that have been previously passed.

And it was in my mind, all along, that if that route did not work and the president decided that military force was necessary, then I would support it, and there was never a question in my mind about that. You can't say to the president, here's the alternative that you ought to try now, but if that doesn't work and you're the one who makes the judgment as to whether it's working or not, then I won't be there for you on the other route. I was there, and frankly, we have to remember that on [April 9, 2003], when Baghdad fell to our troops, everybody was thinking this was a good outcome.

Looked pretty successful at that time.

It was.

The mistake in planning for Iraq that you've discussed is that not enough troops were there to cope with the worst case, and by 2006, the bombing in Samarra and the turn to mass sectarian violence, the worst case eventuated, and the U.S. was not there in adequate force. Who, in the end, is responsible for having missed that, for having not sent enough troops over there?

I would say the administration has to bear a responsibility. We did not impose our will throughout the country after the fall of Baghdad. There was an expectation that things would sort of click back into place quickly. I think it was a misplaced expectation, but my colleagues in the Pentagon who were in charge of that phase of it — and should have been in charge — that is the job of the military.

But I don't think it was well understood that you had to impose your order as the new government, as the occupier. And we started to cut off the flow of troops going to Iraq. And therefore, it made it more difficult to impose order. But we also didn't demonstrate the political understanding and will needed to impose order. We thought that in a period of, oh, 90 days of consultants coming in, a government would come back in place or we would find a way to pass it off to the Iraqis. But that turned out not to be the case and an insurgency started. And for several months, we wouldn't acknowledge that it was an insurgency.

And then, I think the whole thing fundamentally changed. Long after I left, when we had the bombing of the Golden Mosque in early 2006, that fundamentally changed a difficult insurgency into sectarian conflict, which I believe meets the standard of a civil war.

But when I put together your expectations of when the armed forces are just too strapped to keep on extending deployments and the lid on the boiling pot metaphor, it sounds like at some point, there will be a situation in Iraq that we don't like. It will be worse than what we want to see in Iraq, but we'll have to accept it.

I think at the end of the day, there will be a Shia-dominated government. That's been a given from the very beginning because the Shias are 60 percent of the population. It more than likely will be more fundamentalist a government than we would like to see with a closer relationship with Iran than we would like to see. But it won't be dominated by Iran. The difference between Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians — they had a war for eight years, we have to remember.

And so, I hope that this government can come into being with an understanding of the need to give the Sunnis part of the power and to allow them to participate in the government. That may come about through exhaustion as a result of this sectarian conflict or they find political solutions. But right now, while we are doing a great job with our surge — and I'm so proud of our soldiers that are doing it — we do not find that the Iraqi political leadership is stepped across the line of departure and started to do what they need to do in order to reduce the source of this conflict, the disagreements that exist.

We still see militias at work. We still see weaknesses in the armed forces and police forces. And those have to be dealt with, and they ultimately have to be dealt with by the Iraqis.

A couple of other topics. First in the Middle East peace process, would you talk to Hamas right now in Gaza?

I think you'd have to find some way to talk to Hamas. I don't want to insert myself into what Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is doing or what the president is doing. But they are not going to go away. And we have to remember that they enjoy considerable support among the Palestinian people. They won an election that we insisted upon having. And so, as unpleasant a group as they may be, and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the [Middle East Quartet, which consists of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations] or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged. I don't think you can just cast them into outer darkness and try to find a solution to the problems of the region without taking into account the standing that Hamas has in the Palestinian community.

Another matter: In dealing with Iran, should it be — either implicit or explicit — that the U.S. would resort to some kind of military strike against an Iranian target if they proceeded with a nuclear program?

No president ever will say there is no military option. That's not wise because you want to keep maximum flexibility. But as I look at the situation, I don't see any circumstances right now that would suggest that there is any imminence of a military strike or that there are any conditions that would suggest a military strike is forthcoming in the near future.

One other subject: From time to time, I talk to groups of voters about issues and politics, and it's now become predictable — whether it's in Virginia or Ohio or wherever — when I ask people if there are any leaders who they find truly impressive and inspiring, frankly, one name comes up, and it's yours. It's not from everyone in the room, but it's from people who vote Democratic, vote Republican. What do you make of this, which has trailed you a significant number of years --

Twelve to be precise —

Twelve years in which you've been considered a putative president.

I'm touched, and frankly, kind of humbled that some people anyway, not all — it's not as universal as you might suggest --

No, no, but there are not lots of other people mentioning other people. You have your detractors, but there are not lots of other names that you hear like that.

I'm touched, but it's kind of easy to have that sort of status when you're not out there every day like our politicians — fighting over every imaginable issue, from agricultural subsidies to ethanol to you name it — and to be somewhat offstage. But I am, nevertheless, touched and humbled that people would feel that way. But I am not going to be a political candidate ever. It's not in my genetic makeup, and I thought about it 12 years ago. It was a very difficult period in my life, in the life of my family, as we went through this. But at the end of the day, you have to do what you think is the right thing for you and the country, and my wife and I, and my family and I, found other ways to serve the nation outside of political life.

This transcript contains minor edits for clarity.

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