MJ: If we were to withdraw over the course of three years, what would we be able to accomplish there that we couldn't have accomplished in less time?
WN: We are accountable for all the equipment that we have in the country. In other words, we could be very deliberate about the process. We save the taxpayers' money as much as possible, first. Second, we have the ability to react to unforeseen events that we can't forecast. One of the reasons that I like a deliberate plan in the two- to three-year time frame is that it deals with all these dire predictions of what will happen when we withdraw. If they begin to happen, we can do something about it. It also gives planning time to our enemy. Well, also it gives planning time to our friends so they can accommodate themselves and get used to the idea and therefore you prevent the helicopters over the embassy. So you want it to be our plan, our initiative, our terms, and our timeline. How much equipment will we leave behind? Zero. Is it our intent to leave Iraq? Now in the two, two and a half year time frame, we receive legitimate requests from the Iraqi government for assistance. We will consider those as they occur, but it is important to have the political objective, both domestic and international, to say we are leaving. As part of our leaving, we will finish the job.
MJ: Is it common to decide what is worth taking home and what's worth leaving behind?
WN: Yeah, if you have a whole bunch of ammunition, is the cost of transporting that ammunition and the likelihood of its usefulness to the government worth the cost of transportation vis-à-vis buying a quarter of what we need for training purposes and leaving what we have and turning it over to the Iraqis? There is a common calculation that we go through for all of that stuff.
MJ: Do you do anything with the ammunition that you feel would be in the danger of falling into the wrong hands once we leave?
WN: That's part of the calculation. You just say, "We haven't given the good guys any of these weapons. We either have to destroy this ammunition or we have to get it out of the country and back to the U.S. or store it someplace else."
MJ: Is Kuwait the only route out of the country?
WN: No, I don't think it is the only option. I think there is a possibility of using Turkey to go out because going out through Turkey may be a way to assuage the fears of the Turks of an independent Kurdistan. For the political support we give Turkey, they give us access to ports and allow us to leave. I think they'd want a guarantee that we weren't fostering an independent Kurdistan. There are tons of ramifications for what we try to achieve. It might be a U.S. military offensive to take out the PKK. That might be the price.
MJ: What do you think of the implications of leaving troops in Kurdistan?
WN: I think that leaving troops in Kurdistan is a political statement that you are looking to divide Iraq, because you are giving independent political weight to a private portion of Iraq.
MJ: Which of Iraq's neighbors will try to fill a power vacuum?
WN: I think all of them will pursue their own interests with respect to Iraq. Obviously Turkey's foremost one is the impact of the Kurds, how they disrupt the domestic political affairs of Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Syria have great interest in assuring that their brethren are not subject to pressures that would be disruptive to the political stability of their own countries as well as wanting to assist them because they want to limit the impact of Iraq. And it's not with Iran in Iraq; it's Iran in the region. Obviously the Shiite populations and the Iranian influence—their secular influence, guns and powers and all that—is a concern to a number of the Gulf States.
MJ: Do you think that the U.S. will have any ability to influence what happens in the region if they do leave Iraq, and not necessarily on their own terms?
WN: The only thing worse than going in badly is leaving badly. We have to take into consideration the concerns of all the countries in the region and pursue larger political objectives to include Israel-Palestinian issues, balance the power of issues with respect to Iran, make a cooperative effort with respect to a number of the major powers in the region.
Engaging across the region is essential for proper withdrawal. We have got to use this disaster that is Iraq and try to turn that crisis into a long-term opportunity.
MJ: Within Iraq, is there hope for a transfer of power through a constitutional process?
WN: Well, I would hope so. I think we should foster that. But we should foster that on their timeline, not ours. There has to be a timeline that is associated with our pursuit of our interests and there has to be a Baghdad timeline where the Iraqis sort it out and start figuring out the process, the formula by which they are going to share power and wealth.
MJ: How do you prioritize those contradictory timelines?
WN: I am an American; I am interested in prioritizing the achievement of American objectives. There is not an absolute coincidence between U.S. and Iraqi interests. That's unfortunate because we put them in a hell of a bind. A hell of a lot more people have died under the U.S. rule than under Saddam Hussein's rule, not counting the war with Iran.
MJ: When a country withdraws from any battlefield, what do they do with prisoners?
WN: You are talking about detainees, some of whom were criminals, some of whom are terrorists, some of whom are folks we really can't sort out the status of. If we believe they are a threat to U.S. interests, then we have to deal with them in one way. If we believe they are a threat to Iraq's, then we have to go through a due process of turning those folks over to the Iraqi authorities. So as you count for your guns and you count for your ammunition, you have to count for the detainees you have under your control. Now I can see a situation where there are some people we may not want to turn over to the Iraqis because they are considered to be a continuing threat to the United States if they aren't kept under control. That could be a very difficult process. Especially if they are Iraqi citizens.
MJ: Do we transfer military bases to the Iraqi government too?
WN: We transform. We give everything to the Iraqi government.
MJ: What about the reconstruction process? Do you think we are going to continue to funnel money into Iraq?
WN: I think there will be and should be a foreign assistance program of significant proportions to Iraq, and it should be proportional to certain conditions, that basically fulfills our obligations to assist the country that we have made during the period of our occupation. And it should be consistent with the behavior of the government in a manner that we would be willing to fund efforts like respect for minority rights, due process, rule of law.
MJ: Have you been in touch with military personnel or policymakers about planning for withdrawal?
WN: Have I talked with some folks who work for the government who deal with those issues? Yes. But I go back to where we started this. It's very important that they can do a lot of notional planning—how many people have to move, how much equipment we are going to move, and how many supplies we are going to move. But the withdrawal plan cannot be achieved until there is political military guidance issued by the president and the secretary of defense saying, "This is what we want you to do and this is what we want you to accomplish as we go about our withdrawal." When they are saying, "There is planning" or "No, there is not planning," it cannot be anywhere near detailed enough until the appropriate political guidance is issued. We have to think this thing through and then act accordingly, and that will be expensive, and that will be time consuming.
If I take two and a half years to leave and I provide various aid packages to various parts of Iraq, the Iraq central government, and the region, and I keep troops there and I do this thing in a very deliberate way, it will be more expensive to the American taxpayer than if I left quickly. And by the way, more people will get hurt over that time frame because I am still going to be exposed to hostile acts, but the objective is to maintain and hopefully improve near and long-term national security interests.
MJ: If we withdraw through Kuwait, do you anticipate us taking heavy fire?
WN: Why would you not think there would be IEDs? People are not going to dance in the street that we are leaving. They are going to try and take advantage of it. Go back and watch the end of Lawrence of Arabia where the Turks withdraw from Saudi Arabia up through Iraq and everything.
MJ: There has been this idea that it's starting to look like India when the English withdrew.
WN: Right, Right. The occupation of Iraq was not like the occupation of Germany or Japan. The dummies who talked like we could do it like that are one of the reasons we have had all the problems we have had.
MJ: Do you think there will be contractors in Iraq after the military leaves?
WN: I think contractors will be hip deep in everything we do as part of the process. The logistics of withdrawal of supplies and stuff will be very heavily contract work.
I think some of our security system efforts will be done through contractors in the Iraqi government. But not a police force. I think contractors with guns are dangerous things. Contractors with trucks are good things. Contractors with guns are bad things.
MJ: What do you think are the most important steps Iraq's politicians can take to prepare for a withdrawal?
WN: They have to maintain a sense of nation-state. Two, they have to have a good-faith commitment to finding the formula for sharing power and wealth in the country.