STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What should U.S. military forces do in Iraq now that Iraq's Parliament has told them to get out? Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor joins us next via Skype. He was an aide to General David Petraeus, one of the leading generals of the Iraq war. Now he is a professor of military history at The Ohio State University, from where he is watching the aftermath of the U.S. strike in Iraq that killed an Iranian general. Colonel Mansoor, welcome to the program.
PETER MANSOOR: Good morning. Great to be on.
INSKEEP: What is the U.S. interest in staying when they're being asked to go?
MANSOOR: Well, there's two interests, really. Iraq is a key player in the Middle East. It's centrally located. It's a vital ally in the war on terror, especially the war against ISIS, and U.S. forces in Syria (inaudible) - have in Iraq. It's important (inaudible) - it's really important that we have a relationship (inaudible).
INSKEEP: I just want to mention, Colonel Mansoor, we've begun to hear you with considerable difficulty. I'm wondering if there's some problem with your headset and perhaps you'd like to remove that. We are live here and talking with retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor via Skype. And it looks like we're going to try to reconnect.
We are discussing the aftermath of an airstrike by the United States inside Iraq. As you may have learned over the past several days, last week, the U.S. struck Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general, near the Baghdad airport. That has led to severe repercussions inside Iraq, where the Parliament on Sunday voted to order U.S. and other foreign forces to leave. Colonel Mansoor, are you back with us?
MANSOOR: I am, yeah
INSKEEP: OK, great. That's much better. So you were saying that there is a U.S. interest in staying even though the - even though they're being asked to go. What is that interest?
MANSOOR: Well, there is a vital interest in containing the war against ISIS. Iraq is a key player in that conflict. U.S. forces in Syria really could not be supported from bases elsewhere in the region. And Iraq is centrally located in the Middle East. It's going to be a determining country in how that region progresses going forward. And it's vital for the United States have a relationship with Iraq.
INSKEEP: Well, given that, Colonel, was it a strategic mistake for the U.S. to make this attack in Iraq and suddenly shift Iraq's politics in a way that people wanted U.S. forces out?
MANSOOR: You know, it was one of those instances where the United States had to reestablish some form of deterrence against Iran because of Iran's attacks against U.S. interests and personnel across the Middle East. I think killing Qassem Soleimani might have been a step too far given his relationship with members of the Iraqi government. It would have been probably preferable to have chosen a different target, but we are where we are now.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention, according to reporting from White House correspondents, President Trump was given a menu of options and killing Qassem Soleimani was a choice. This was a choice, and there were probably other ways the president might have tried to reestablish deterrence, as you say.
MANSOOR: Yeah. There were probably a number of other targets that could have been hit, as he had various targets presented to him after the U.S. drone was shot down several months ago and chose not to. On the other hand, you can't say that Qassem Soleimani was unwarranted. He was directing attacks against U.S. forces. He was directing the attack against our embassy. He's personally responsible for the killing of upwards of 600 U.S. soldiers in the Iraq War. So he wasn't necessarily a figure that you should shed any tears over.
INSKEEP: Of course. Now, as regards to the United States in Iraq, it seems legally possible for the moment for the United States to stay because the Parliament vote to ask foreign forces to leave is nonbinding, but is it politically practical for the U.S. to remain in the face of such opposition?
MANSOOR: You know, Iraq is split. The Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers didn't even show up to Parliament for the vote on removing U.S. forces. And so I wouldn't say that Iraq is united in wanting U.S. forces out. It does make it more difficult. But I think, you know, this is a - at the moment, it's posturing. And we'll see what the new Iraqi government, one that has the authority to actually order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, says once it's in place.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should mention, we had a Kurdish politician on the program elsewhere today who said that he would like U.S. forces to stay and ultimately said that Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, might welcome them even if the central government asked them to go.
I want to ask about one other aspect of this, though, Colonel. The U.S. sent out a letter - the Pentagon sent a letter saying the U.S. would begin a withdrawal. Then they said, oh, sorry. That was just a draft. We sent it by mistake. Just a typo. Now, we all make mistakes, but I wonder, do you see here a symptom of some larger confusion or stress within the U.S. government on this?
MANSOOR: I think there was perhaps some confusion in Baghdad. The brigadier general in charge of the mission there got out ahead of the administration. I wouldn't read too much into that memo. The policy was quickly corrected by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense.
INSKEEP: Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor. Thanks so much.
MANSOOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.