'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
extra-long video podcast: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
(Sort of) The toss: You're Keith
Guests: Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, Col. Jack Jacobs, Sen. Bob Graham, Jonathan Landay
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Two thousand six hundred and sixty-six days since President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq. Two thousand seven hundred and eight days since American forces invaded Iraq.
At this hour, American combat forces are leaving Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: I think we're coming right up to the Kuwaiti border now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: This is a special edition of Countdown.
Chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, in a world exclusive, embedded with, reporting live from the last convoy of American combat troops as it leaves Iraq via the Kuwait border.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're watching the end of an era of the American military.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: With Rachel Maddow inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, and Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell, Eugene Robinson, Howard Fineman, Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon, retired General Paul Eaton, retired Colonel Jack Jacobs, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and former weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.
From Baghdad, from the Iraq-Kuwait border, from Washington, from New York - this is Countdown's special continuing live coverage of the end of America's Iraq combat mission.
OLBERMANN: Good evening again from New York. Thus, at the top of hour here, we begin a special edition of Countdown as we continue our breaking news coverage of the last combat troops leaving Iraq.
Our embedded correspondent, Richard Engel, has been reporting live from the convoy - the only reporter to do - so do, as the troops approach that border and crossing it and emptying their weapons as they did. A remarkable moment that at least symbolically closes an important chapter in a conflict which is stretched on for more than seven years, as well as 4,415 in uniform who did not get this chance to leave Iraq alive.
We'll be returning to Richard in a few moments live to see the status of the last transfer of those troops across the border into Kuwait. They've been there since about 7:23 Eastern Time this evening at that border crossing, the last 440 troops in the 4th Stryker Brigade. We'll also have our thoughts and analysis of our various analysts and hosts throughout the evening and in particular, in this next special hour of Countdown.
And we'll turn first to retired Major General Paul Eaton.
General, thanks for your time tonight.
MAJ. GEN. PAUL EATON (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Hey, Keith. Thank you very much for having us on.
OLBERMANN: All right. We'll start off with the - with the emotions and the visceral sense that you have seen, the symbolism of the last brave men and women leaving Iraq safely.
EATON: Well, it's - there is a lot of emotion, particularly if you've participated or your family has participated in the Iraq war, which I did personally and as well, one of my sons. So, this is a great moment and I'm thrilled to see it.
OLBERMANN: I don't know how to put this exactly. What of this has been - has been worth it? Separating from the equation, the bravery, the comradeship, the work, the incredible courage of the men and women who have fought there, what has been worth it of this war?
EATON: Keith, I struggle with that. The wisdom of going there, I will leave to the historians. It was a decision on the part of a three-man group to get after this thing. And I'll let the historians work that through. It's going to take a number of years to figure that out.
The - what good has come of it? The Armed Forces of the United States right now are better than they've been in a long time. It's - the camaraderie that you mentioned, and the cohesion of the ground forces is over the top.
We have paid a huge price in blood and national resources to get to where we are right now. And the irony is, that what we really hope for is a stable and Democratic Iraq, and that will probably bear out in the years ahead, and we'll have a great deal to do with how we view the decision to go in there.
OLBERMANN: I'm going to join - I have Chris Matthews join our discussion at this point - Chris.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, "Hardball" HOST: General, I guess that's a tough question for the fighting men and women which is: can you fight a war with such an indeterminate ending?
General Eisenhower, I was reading today, didn't believe in limited wars. Well, we would have a hard time in this era because he believed in wars of annihilation where you went to Berlin or you went to Tokyo and that was the end of it. And the end of the enemy, they were at your command. But now, we fight wars in like Korea which Eisenhower ended where he just said the war is over. We've done what we can do.
Here, you have a strange war where the mission of the last three years was to create political settlement in Baghdad. It hasn't actually been achieved and yet, the United States said, well, our timetable has been reached. We're leaving. What does that do to the morale of the fighting person to know that sometime you have to just leave after you've done your best?
EATON: The sophistication of the Armed Forces of the United States at every rank level is far greater than a lot of people would seem to think - particularly the sophistication of our very young soldiers.
EATON: So, they wax pretty philosophical on this. And they've got a very good picture of what they were sent to do and the limits of the power that they can bring to bear. I'm reading Andrew Bacevich's book right now, "Power Rules." The - an analysis of the semi-war state the United States has been in for, well, since World War II. And it is a very illustrative book and a recommended read.
MATTHEWS: But I guess there's a question - I guess the heart of the question is: is there somewhere between now where we recognize what we have debates in this country, then we have elections, then people like George W. Bush declare a war and decide on a war and sell it to the Congress and to some of the American people, then we have a new election where a president, like Barack Obama, comes in and says this is enough? And somewhere in there, you face the notion of a limited war or war where you change your mind about its potential conclusion.
But how do you avoid an Orwellian situation where you're just always fighting, with the war just goes on and on and on, and it's always sold as a continuing war that has to be. I mean, that's not what you're saying, is it? That we would have to face a future like that?
EATON: Chris, this book that I just mentioned - really, the Iraq war, the Afghan war, are logical progressions from the evolution of a United States of America on a perpetual war footing since the Second World War. And we are predisposed to this kind of activity. And have been for the last half century.
The real work is to take a hard look at our foreign policy, to take a hard look at how we wish to engage in the future. And whether or not we wish to have a militarized foreign policy or whether we wish to reestablish the State Department -
EATON: - as a primary vehicle to move forward in the world.
MATTHEWS: Well, that's - OK, go ahead, Keith.
MATTHEWS: I think the question there is so lively, which is: are we always going to be at war? Or can we find a leadership which finds a civilian or a diplomatic solution more often than not?
EATON: The real effort is to bring the United States Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy back into their core competency, and that is to secure our lines of communication, both air and sea, and to fight and win the nation's wars where our vital interests are at stake.
EATON: And the role of government is to provide for the security of the governed. And it's not to embark upon preemptive warfare to change the landscape. And we've had other presidents besides President Bush embarked upon similar ventures.
OLBERMANN: Surely, General, and we discussed this at many points in the last several years, the problem is as much government that's seek to do that, and politician that's seek to do that as a public that has been willing to or certainly was willing for a long time with this war in particular, to accept the premise of - we need another six months to see how the latest change from X to Y, or from Y back to X, will take - will improve the situation. There's always been a request for another six months in this process.
How do you - and I know it's a huge question to ask - but how do you work against that kind of mindset when something like that has been accepted, and what we're watching essentially end tonight is testimony to that?
EATON: There is a very strong pressure, particularly on Democratic presidents, Democratic Party presidents, to be tough in the face of foreign policy challenges. And I go back to Richard Nixon who elected as a Republican president, chose to make the very hard decision to end the Vietnam War. He did it inelegantly. But he did it.
And I expect the same strength of character with President Barack Obama to make the very hard calls that he's going to have to make in Afghanistan that he has made in Iraq.
OLBERMANN: Let's go back on the ground to the international zone in Baghdad for a question from Rachel Maddow - Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" HOST: Thanks, Keith.
And thanks, General Eaton. Thinking back on the large scale Defense Department up-scaling that we've seen since 9/11, since 2001, the Pentagon budget is something like doubled. A lot of what the U.S. was concerned about when it became clear the Iraq war was going to be a long war, was the strain on the U.S. military - not only U.S. forces being killed and being injured here, but also the military itself being injured here - the incredible demands that we were putting on our Armed Forces to fight not one but two wars, to go through an incredible amount of equipment, and essentially to be stretched - to be stretched very thin.
So, we've both seen the military be put through a lot and the military funded to a degree that we never could have imagined in August of 2001. Looking back now to how much that budget has gone up.
What would you say is the health of the U.S. military right now as a fighting force, given what they've been through?
EATON: The cost to reset the force, the equipment of the force, is one question. The health of the Armed Forces, the men and women who go forth and execute the missions of the commander-in-chief - my view into those forces, and I get to see it at several ranks, and on active duty as well as those who are coming out of the military. And the strength of character, and the strength of commitment of the Armed Forces of the United States, again, at every rank is over the top superb.
So, I have - I have absolute faith in the resilience of the Armed Forces in the face of some troubling statistics that we've had on suicides and family events. The cost to the taxpayer to reset the ground forces from an equipment perspective, I can't fathom. But it's - it's going to be very, very high.
OLBERMANN: We'll continue here. Jack Jacobs has a point to make -
COL. JACK JACOBS, RET., U.S. ARMY: Yes, along those lines is the size of the force, General Eaton raised the notion that the military - the psyche of the military is a superb condition, and it is. But we have to keep one thing in mind. We've got a country of 310 million people. And we've got an armed force which on a per capita basis is one-third the size of the Iraqi armed force.
We fought this war, and the war in Afghanistan, relying not necessarily wholly on active duty people - people who volunteered to be in the active duty military, but on our citizen soldiers, reserve and the National Guard, who repeatedly went back to Southwest Asia, back on - back to Southwest Asia and back.
I talked to one sergeant who lost her leg and was in the National Guard, was on her third tour when she lost a leg.
We can't operate a modern country using the military instrument to any extent, even a limited extent, relying so heavily on people who are citizen soldiers to the extent that we have in this war. And if we learned anything - and I hope we learned a lot of lessons - it is that question can't do that again.
OLBERMANN: And, General, concomitant with that, we essentially had a backdoor draft of many of these people. They were - they did not - they thought they were done and they turned out not to be. That was another lesson. Address Jack's point.
EATON: He is absolutely correct. I go back to a conversation that I had in the meeting during the campaign with President Clinton. And he was thinking back and he made the comment, "Perhaps I drew the active forces down too much." And I told him that, "Sir," I was a colonel during that period, "And your Armed Forces matched your foreign policy, appetite for the use of force."
And I would - I would say that Colonel Jacobs' point is, otherwise stated, let's have an armed force that is, say, matched for the foreign policy appetite of the country.
OLBERMANN: Lawrence O'Donnell?
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: General, I'd like to ask you what you think the 50,000 troops who've been left behind will be facing in Iraq.
And in that question, I'd like the review for the audience what the Defense Department says they will be doing. They say it will be force protection, which is providing security for State Department officials and for others who are there; the training and equipping function, helping to train the Iraqi military.
The other component - and I'm going to quote the Defense Department's statement yesterday on this - the other component is, quote, "continued, partnered counterterrorism missions."
Now, the military's official name for tonight's exit mission is "The Last Patrol." But when I read these functions that the military will still have in Iraq, especially that last one, "continued partnered counterterrorism missions," was this really the last patrol?
EATON: It's the last of a - and you rightfully point out the - that last mission because we see in Yemen and Somalia, as well as Afghanistan, and parts that I'm not privy to, a continued special forces approach to counterterrorism. That with a robust intelligence network, that we will continue to locate and kill enemies actively involved against the United States.
So, like those other countries, I expect to see an enduring presence and activity on the part of special operating forces while our conventionally operating forces have been pulled offline.
OLBERMANN: Retired General Paul Eaton - it's always a pleasure and we gain so much from your insights, sir. Thank you kindly for sharing so much of your time with us this evening.
EATON: Thank you, Keith, very much.
OLBERMANN: We should recap if you're joining us what's happening here tonight.
Unannounced, unrevealed until about 6:30 Eastern Time, the State Department through - permitting our live broadcast via Richard Engel from an embedded position in what was at that point the moving 4th Stryker Brigade convoy out of Iraq, towards Iraq - the State Department announcing that the last official combat troops from the U.S. force in Iraq was leaving that country - leaving 50,000 U.S. troops in the form of advisers and consultants - dangerous that is even though the name sounds benign and almost Wall Street-ish.
The troops that made break of the border, that's what you're seeing there now - this scene of flash bulbs popping and large, extraordinary vehicles lumbering like gigantic camels, if you'll forgive the imagery of the desert, through that scene in the middle of the night. Within a few minutes from now, the last of them will have cleared that check point along the border.
Richard Engel described in great detail the slow process by which every single member, every one of the 440 troops, would be check for papers and to make sure, as his guests in several interviews, his comrade in that one Stryker vehicle, Lieutenant DeWitt (ph), mentioned, there was to be - every one of them was to be checked to make sure they weren't bringing contraband from Iraq to Kuwait. It was as if it was ordinary border-crossing. It apparently has gone off without incident for which we're all mighty grateful.
The scenery and the symbolism, and the importance of what we have been seeing, almost defies description. It is such a contrast, obviously, to the events of March 2003.
We're going to go back to Richard Engel and get more on the perspective of now versus then, and what's ahead both for that nation and for those 50,000 American troops who will stay there on our live breaking coverage of the last night of U.S. combat troops in Iraq continues here on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: This is MSNBC's continuing live coverage of the last night for formal U.S. combat troops in Iraq. The last few are crossing that border with Kuwait at this hour, and we'll be going live shortly to Richard Engel who embedded with that last group, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 440 men and women U.S. personnel who are leaving Iraq safely tonight and apparently without incident and apparently now all or nearly all cleared the Kuwait border.
A little history now and a little perspective on where we have been and where we are going: In October of 2002, the Senate - 75 members of them - were briefed and told that Iraq had weapons that could reach the United Kingdom, the eastern seaboard of the United States, possibly with chemical and biological weapons using some manner of unmanned drones.
Within days, the Senate had voted to approve a join resolution to authorize the use of Armed Forces - American Armed Forces in Iraq. The rest of that story, you know pretty well.
There were very few dissenting voices at that time. One of them joins us now, the former senator from Florida, Bob Graham.
Senator Graham, thanks for your time tonight.
FMR. SEN. BOB GRAHAM (D), FLORIDA: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: What is your perspective as you see these last combat
troops come out seven years and many days later from the start of that war,
and nearly eight since that unfortunate - let's use the term "unfortunate"
briefing in October of 2002?
GRAHAM: Well, Keith, you have to be pulled the with pride for these young men and women who have represented the United States over these past seven years with such distinction. We will welcome them home as the heroes and heroines that they are.
OLBERMANN: Their work there - as we said earlier - has been extraordinary and inspirational to everyone, whether they were in support of what happened in Iraq or whether they were opposed to that. That's never been a question and it isn't a question tonight. It's a moment I think of pride for all of us to see them and of relief to see anyone get out of there safely and intact.
But the perspective of what this war meant and what these last seven-plus years have meant in terms of the future of this country and the nature of this country can't be ignored at this point. I'd like your perspective on that question at this hour.
GRAHAM: Well, I think some of the lessons that we've learned are:
First, that we need to have a clear understanding of what it is we are trying to accomplish before we commit those brave young men and women to combat.
Second, we need to have an awareness that we can't do everything everywhere effectively.
One of the reason I opposed this war is I thought the more important combat was that that was taking place in Afghanistan where the people that had just killed 3,000 Americans were based and that we should complete that war before we started to take on additional tasks.
I happened to meet with General Tommy Franks in February of 2002, six months before the vote, a year before the war in Iraq started. And he told me that even as early as that time, we were starting to retreat from the war in Afghanistan as we were refocusing for Iraq. We were withdrawing key units, as well as equipment, such as the predator drones from Afghanistan. And we lost the opportunity that was very available to us to capture bin Laden and his key operatives before they were able to hide themselves in the caves of Pakistan.
Those are some of the losses, the opportunity cost of the decision to go into Iraq.
OLBERMANN: Senator, certainly, though, as we discussed - we were talking about this just before the break with General Eaton. One of the side effects that was even forecast at that time that you're describing when this decision was made, to reallocate sources or steal them, if you prefer, from Afghanistan or from Iraq to Afghanistan - or from Afghanistan to Iraq where this unfortunate series of events that unfolded there, even then, it was - it was prophesied in a sense that at some point in the future, there would really be a need for American intervention somewhere, probably in that region. And the American public would be skeptical not based on any of the merits of the project that was to be undertaken, but on the outcome, entirely of what had happened in Iraq.
Are we now seeing that prophecy fulfilled? And how is that it there is support or lack of support for our continued role in Afghanistan based on the doubts about our role that is just symbolically ending in Iraq tonight?
GRAHAM: Yes, another opportunity cost to this was the opportunity to rally the American people in support of military activities that were truly in our strategic interest. Going back again to that conversation with General Franks - he said that he thought the first objective of the use of military force in that region should be to complete the war in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. That, second, we ought to look at the next two places where there were significant al Qaeda presence without the ability of a government to control them - those were Somalia and Yemen. So, those would have been his next targets based on a strategy that our real enemy were those people who had just demonstrated the capability and the will to kill Americans in America.
We got distracted with the war in Iraq. And we now have ended up with Afghanistan may be tumbling back to the Taliban, Pakistan very unstable in part because of the conditions in Afghanistan, and the American people questioning whether any use of military force in this region of the world, Central Asia, the Middle East, is worth it.
OLBERMANN: Lastly, certainly though, that begs this other question, which is, as we watch the last combat troops crossing the Iraq/Kuwait border in the - in the videotape, being shown to my right, physically, not screen-wise - Senator, what happens and what have learned if we've learned anything in the last seven years, when someone like General Franks has a set of priorities which in retrospect seem ideal and accurate but the government for which he worked had an entirely different set of priorities? And we don't have to analyze why they were those priorities or why they took the measures that they did to sell those priorities.
But where is - where is the comfort zone? Where is the protection? Where is the brake on a system - on a political system or military system in which the wrong war can be fought for that length of time with not only the loss of life and loss of limb and the loss of the money spent on it, but the loss of the opportunity to pursue the right war. What is our defense against that happening again?
GRAHAM: Well, it's in the way in which our government was structured.
We have an executive branch. And the president is the commander-in-chief. But we have a Congress which is supposed to be the entity that would authorize, sanction a war, and then provide the revenues and the funds to support that war.
Unfortunately, in this case, the executive branch did not fulfill its responsibility to speak honestly to the American people and to their representatives in Congress, such as the fact that this idea that there were weapons of mass destruction ready to be used on less than an hour's notice were all fabricated by the exile community in Iraq, which had a very great personal interest in the United States invading Iraq. And we didn't have anybody in Iraq who was confirming whether this information that we received was true. And it turned out that it was not. It was a pack of lies.
We also had a Congress that was unwilling, in the days before an election in 2002, to stand up to the president, even to read the material that would have given them some insights as to what the reality of the situation was in that country. So our governmental system failed the American people. And we paid a very serious price, not only in the loss of 4,500 good American souls, multiple number of our brave soldiers, airmen, sailors, who have been wounded and injured for life, as well as an enormous cost to our Treasury. Those have all been the consequences of a governmental system designed to avoid this, which failed to do so.
OLBERMANN: As we await, senator, another report to reestablish contact with our correspondent, Richard Engel, who is at that Kuwait border now, on the Kuwait side of it, I'm going to turn you over to the tender mercies of Chris Matthews for a question.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Keith. I have to -
GRAHAM: I never knew that you had tender mercies.
MATTHEWS: In your case, I have many of them. Thank you for coming on tonight. It is appropriate that you come on because you've had such a lucid mind on this whole question. I want to ask to you get to the bottom of it, because as we see something of an end to the war, as has been said tonight, the beginning of the end. The language by the State Department correctly or not, an ending of the war.
Let's talk about why it occurred. You pointed out that there were a lot of cases made to the United States Senate in 2002. You didn't mention some of them, like there was a connection to anthrax, a connection to 9/11. We would be spreading democracy; we would get cheaper oil; we would help the peace effort in the Middle East.
All the arguments were made, but none of them were true. And we embraced Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. All that went on. But why did it go on? If you have to write the deep history of the Iraq War as it begins to end, what would you say to the history students of tomorrow, the high school kids, about the real cause of this war? What is the real cause of the Iraq War?
GRAHAM: Well, I think the real cause was a combination of factors. One was there were people who had been involved in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, who felt we should have gone to Baghdad and finished Saddam Hussein at that time. They were sort of settling old scores.
There were people who felt that we did have this almost messianic need to bring democracy, to create Vermont in Iraq. I think the key issue, the one that was relied on most because it had the greatest emotional impact, was the fact that we were under immediate imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction being launched against us.
That was a patent lie, a falsehood which our leadership had every reason to know was an untruth. But they continued to persist in that because that was the way in which they could keep the emotional lather at a level that would support the Iraq War.
MATTHEWS: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Thank you, Chris. Senator Graham, thank you kindly, both for being with us tonight and for what you tried to do in 2002 and 2003.
We keep promising live coverage from Richard Engel of some of the video that you're seeing and the events at the Kuwait board. We'll be going to Richard Engel in Kuwait now with what was the remainder of the Iraq Force, the Iraq Combat Force of the U.S. military, after a quick break. You're watching MSNBC's liver coverage of the last night of formal combat operations for the United States of America in Iraq.
OLBERMANN: Continuing our live special Countdown coverage of the last night of combat troops leaving Iraq now for Kuwait, and perhaps there is no interpretation required of those gestures or that exuberance as they pass through the inch by inch scouring of everything they have, as Richard Engel reported to us earlier. The complete discombobulation of that entire Stryker Brigade, the Fourth, 440 troops, asked to present everything they had on them, and make sure it was all non-contraband, and saluted into the relative safety of Kuwait, with many of them to be, as we heard earlier, relocated to Afghanistan, perhaps as early as six months hence.
We'll be going back out to the scene, to the Kuwaiti/Iraq border with Richard in just a few moments, as technical qualities permit us to do so. In the interim, we're joined by the national security and intelligence correspondent for "McClatchy Newspapers," Jonathan Landay. Jonathan, thanks for your time tonight.
JONATHAN LANDAY, "MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS": My pleasure.
OLBERMANN: The troops who are leaving and the number that have moved out of Iraq in the last year and a half, per the Obama time line from February of 2009, they hit the mark, and in fact hit it a little bit early. Let's talk for a moment about the 50,000 who are left behind, and the significance of that 50,000 number, as the history of American interests in Iraq, at least this chapter of them is written.
LANDAY: This is the great irony for me, Keith. The fact is that under the delusional plans that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had approved for the invasion of Iraq, they had intended to come down to 50,000 troops within three or four months of that invasion. And of course, we know what happened in the interim. They did not anticipate or they ignored the forecast that they could very well be facing an insurgency, which is exactly what happened. They went in with too few troops, tens of thousands of too few troops. They deviated from their war plan.
That, for me, is the ultimate irony, is the fact that more than seven years later, we've now gotten down to the 50,000 troops that they thought they could get down to within three months of the invasion. .
OLBERMANN: Not assuming that delusional planning continues
indefinitely, but that does make one wonder about this idea that those
50,000 troops that remain are just merely advisers and trainers. We've
been discussing for the last two hours here the danger that they will face
even if that is an accurate description. Do we have any indication that
what we think those 50,000 men and women are going to be doing is what the
Iraqi insurgents or the other forces that they face on a day-to-day basis -
what they think those 50,000 men and women are going to have to face?
LANDAY: Well, look, those 50,000 men and women include special forces who will be going out on counter-terrorism missions with Iraqi forces. That, to me, is combat. They're armed. They're going into combat. There will be American, quote/unquote, advisers going out with Iraqi forces on regular patrols. That to me opens the door to combat.
So I don't think we're going to see the end of - we are not going to see the end of combat for American forces I don't think in Iraq.
OLBERMANN: Jonathan Landay of "McClatchy Newspapers," forgive me for being so brief. We thank you for your time and for the resonating irony of that 50,000 number. A great point. Thank you again.
As we said, we were trying to make sure that everything was technically in force before getting back out to the Kuwait/Iraq border, where now the troops who were the last American combat troops in Iraq are relatively safe and sound for the night. Richard Engel now rejoins us from the scene. Richard, update us on where you are and what's happening there.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Sorry, I'm no longer in the striker, as you can tell. I am standing right at the border crossing. And you can see the headlights of the last American convoy of combat troops coming through the border right now. And we were in part of this convoy. We've already crossed the border. And now we have disconnected from that vehicle and we are watching the last American combat troops entering into Kuwait.
We can see their headlights. The gate is being opened right now. They will enter into what is effectively a no man's land, where they can park their vehicle. They will take their weapons out of them, take all of the ammunition out, make sure that there is absolutely no contraband of any kind.
Then they will go formally be processed into Kuwait, checking all of their documents, go to American bases, and then ship out and go back to the United States. These troops from Ft. Lewis, Washington, part of the 4-2 Stryker Brigade.
This is a moment - an historical moment. These are image that will last a long time, the last American combat troops pulling in right now into the no man's land into Kuwait.
OLBERMANN: As we've seen it from here, Richard, it has looked like everything has gone as smoothly as it possibly could. Not to throw out any verbal jinxes, if you believe in any of that nonsense, but the thing has been smooth and secure. Is that the assessment on the ground in Kuwait?
ENGEL: It certainly is. It has gone very smoothly. It has gone on schedule. They had a few minor issues, not even really breakdowns, just times where they had to pause and fix a little bit of the vehicles. That is completely normal. There were no attacks. I didn't hear a single shot fired at the vehicle. It was coordinated with the Iraqi security forces. As we passed under overpasses and bridges, there were Iraqi troops right there.
So now they are rolling in. They didn't go through the desert. They weren't under fire. Instead, they rolled on Iraqi highways and took the main roads.
OLBERMANN: And as we're seeing testimony to the accelerative powers of those vehicles, I would like to take you back to your first report two hours ago, about the experience that you had on those highways where other vehicles were - what we're seeing here is a military operation. You were basically fighting through Iraqi traffic at the start of this?
ENGEL: Absolutely. Think back to 2003, when American troops came into this country. They left from Kuwait. They were going in the opposite direction, south to north. But they had to fight their way up. And they were riding in the desert. That so that no one would know where they were going.
This time, these Strykers are traveling on public roads, right in the middle, down the center of the highways. And Iraqis were moving in and around them. They don't move that quickly. I think the top speed we got onto them was about 45 or 50 miles an hour. So Iraqi truckers, being - would just pass them as if they were anybody else on the road. And you can see the convoy stretching out. This is probably the end of it coming soon.
I would think in the next five, ten minutes or so, the last American troops will be - combat troops will be out of this country. Of course, leaving 50,000 troops behind, but with a very different mission, with a different role in Iraq.
These combat troops - to clear out villages of al Qaeda or Shiite militias. And it is a job that they believe they have done very, very effectively. When Iraq is a much more stable place in terms of security than it was a few years ago. But there is still a great degree of political instability. Soldiers will tell you they played their role. - proud of what they have done.
The headlights keep coming. I don't exactly know how many vehicles there are in this convoy. But it shouldn't be very much longer, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Richard, I have to ask again that silliest and most simple of questions, because we were out of touch for probably an hour or a little bit more. As the meaningfulness of this night for those men and women, for American men and women at home watching this - as the meaningfulness of that sinks in here, I imagine it sinks in a little more quickly there. Give me your assessment of what this means to you and to them, to you, and the feel of the whole thing now.
ENGEL: We've now just moved away from the motor pool. So what happened, since we've spoken, is these vehicles pass by us. They go to a large motor pool where they go through all the weapons and ammunition. Where we were just a few moments ago, the scent of cigar smoke is thick in the air. A lot of people are lighting up their cigars. They're congratulating each other, as they go through their weapons and out-process all of their weapons and their paperwork and things like that.
So they are pleased with what they have done. They know the next stop is a - what will probably be a very long and tedious and boring waiting procedure here on a Kuwaiti - on an American military base in Kuwait before they head back home. These troops obviously going back to Ft. Lewis, where the Strykers are based.
The mood is proud. They are excited about what they've done, particularly for the troops who have been here on multiple deployments. A lot of the troops in this brigade were here in the 2007 surge. So they saw this country at the worst of time. Many of them were station in the Dora. I've been Dora before. There were places there call the killing fields, where you would literally be walking through bodies that had been dumped, killed by al Qaeda or Shiite militias, tortured.
Now Dora is a relatively vibrant neighborhood. People go out. The Christian communities that were fleeing the neighborhoods of Dora are starting to come back. That American soldiers, these soldiers who are coming through right now, will say is testimony to what they've done in Iraq.
OLBERMANN: One more question from here and then I'm going to give Rachel Maddow a shot from the international zone in Baghdad. The lieutenant who was on your vehicle, Lieutenant Dewitt, who was so eloquent about the meaningfulness of this night to him and to the troops, is - have any of them that you've spoken to been concerned about the political aspect of this in Iraq, the fact that there is not that dream of the stable, well functioning, or perhaps even functioning government there? Is that an issue to them? Or are these separate considerations at this point, military versus political consequences of the country they're leaving?
ENGEL: Well, since you asked about Lieutenant Dewitt, he said he is not concerned about that. He thinks that the Iraqis will eventually get it together. But I have spoken with other soldiers who are worried about that. They're worried that all of their hard work could dissolve in front of their eyes if the Iraqis don't get their political acts together and don't form a government fairly soon.
But they're confident in the Iraqi security forces. Most of what the Americans have done, especially for the last year or so, has been working with the Iraqi army and, to a lesser degree, the Iraqi police. And they have shown dramatic improvements. They don't have much contact with the Iraqi politicians. That's something we as journalists or I, in particular, have spent a lot of time doing. They don't have a lot of sense of what the negotiations are between Ayad Allawi or Maliki. They've seen the Iraqi forces take strikes forward, but I'm not sure if they realize how - what a basket case politically the Iraqi system is and the Iraqi parliamentary democracy.
It is not functioning well. We seem to be - correct me if I'm wrong
getting near to the end of this convoy. I'm going to let it breathe for a while and look at these pictures. A lot of veterans who have been serving in Iraq have been waiting for this moment undoubtedly for seven and a half years, when the last combat troops could leave. And I think it could be any moment.
And I'm expecting that as soon as the last one come through, you will see that gate very symbolically closing.
OLBERMANN: Two more at least behind us. And they are - and Richard obviously can't see the shot we're seeing at home. But they are coming right into the living room. It's an exceptionally meaningful and visual image. I think your point is well taken. Another set of headlights behind this one. No.
ENGEL: This might be it. It is local time almost ten to four in the morning. And I believe we've just seen the last American combat soldier cross into Kuwait. Yes, the gates are closing right now. This Stryker passing right now represents the last American combat troops in Iraq. The gate is about to close. Keith, this has been an historical moment that we have just seen.
OLBERMANN: Indeed it has been, and an emotional one. And as we try to digest it, we're also going to try the technical trick of two slight audio delays to hook up Richard Engel visually and sound-wise with Rachel Maddow, who is in the international zone in Baghdad and has a pertinent question. Rachel, let's try it again.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: Thank you, Keith. As I said before, right now it's 3:53 Baghdad time. This is as cool as it gets in August right now. And it is really, really hot right now. But yet, seeing what we just saw, right here live with that gate closing, the last U.S. combat troop, I'm totally covered in goose bumps. It is an important moment.
Richard, one of the thing that we're able to see over your shoulder in the shot of you there on the border is what it is like to experience those U.S. armored infantry vehicles and those cargo trucks on a human scale, how honestly just scary and intimidating those vehicles are when you're wet-wear, when you are a soft blooded - a soft fleshed human standing near that sort of a military presence.
Richard, do you expect that there will be any groups in Baghdad, in Iraq, that will really be celebrating the departure of U.S. troops? Making a political point about it or otherwise feeling like this for them is a very, very important moment.
ENGEL: There will be small groups, I expect, that will be celebrating once they realize these images are getting out. As you said, it is the middle of the night. This operation, until just a couple hours ago, was carried out under military secrecy. So tomorrow, when people wake up, I think they will see these images and there will be some very small celebrations, not anything wide scale.
Most Iraqis are nervous about their future. They wonder what the future will bring. Camera angles could capture those protests or those celebrations and make it look big. But I've spent a lot of time in Baghdad. You're not going to see hundred of thousands of people on the streets cheering. Most people are going to wonder what this will mean for their future. Will their government get it together? Will their government be able to provide basic services?
Some fringe groups, sure, they have to play to their constituents and they will say we did it; we won and the Americans left and we did it. Most Iraqis are nervous right now.
OLBERMANN: All right. Rachel, thank you. Richard Engel, thank you. We'll get back to you throughout he evening, both of you, in various - well now - I was going to say both of you in various parts of Iraq, but Richard is officially in Kuwait.
With my colleague, Lawrence O'Donnell now. The point that Rachel made about the visual. - I had touched on this earlier - of these extraordinarily large science fiction shaped vehicles, the hardware of the U.S. military rumbling through. Not, as we saw in March of 2003 and in April of 2003, to begin an event that many had severe doubts about, and others had suspended their doubts about in this country. Namely the start of this operation, Iraqi Freedom, which come to a close with a ceremony I guess at the beginning of September. But the symbolic meaning, combined with that visual was very potent.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR: And there is, as I think Rachel was suggesting, a feel for what an occupation like this is like. You're living in a desert country, a low technology desert country. And suddenly, these monstrous machines are rolling through your town and literally shaking the wall of your home as they go by.
There is no way that our military can do a small footprint, friendly version of this kind of occupation. This being the last hunk of combat wear that we're pulling out of there. It is the tip of the iceberg of what has been in there. We've had a massive amount of equipment in there. A massive amount of equipment will remain.
And it is I think one of those moments where we do have to reflect on the entire seven-year experience. We have to include in this a reflection on what this seven-year experience has been for residents of Iraq, for people who live in this country and whose interest is only in getting through the day, as it were, who don't particularly care who is in charge, as long as they are safe. Their lives were disrupted in ways that they will have to decide was this worth it. There is a was it worth it question to be answered within Iraq by the Iraqi people.
OLBERMANN: That's the videotape that you're watching again of those last few of these enormous vehicles passing through into the secure area just on the Kuwait side of the border. A compound, as Richard Engel has been reporting, in which these will be stripped down and the men will be inspected. Our coverage continues after this.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END