Lucas Jackson / Courtesy Reuters A U.S. military convoy leaves Iraq, December 2011.

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Did Obama Bungle the Iraq Withdrawal?

In describing what he characterizes as a bungled U.S. exit from Iraq, Rick Brennan (“Withdrawal Symptoms,” November/December 2014) presents an incomplete picture. For one thing, he overestimates the desire among Iraq’s leaders for U.S. forces to stay in the country past 2011, the date by which Iraq and the United States agreed that the U.S. military presence would end. When U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s major population centers in 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced triumphantly that his country had finally “repelled the invaders.” It’s true that Maliki sent mixed signals at times and that he might have exaggerated his opposition to the presence of U.S. forces for the benefit of domestic audiences. But the Iraqi parliament consistently opposed Washington’s insistence that it grant legal immunity from Iraqi law to U.S. troops who stayed past 2011. Members of parliament knew their refusal to do so would doom any agreement on allowing U.S. troops to remain longer. Their public stance on this issue, and not Maliki’s alleged flex-ibility in private, is the single best gauge of the Iraqi elite’s attitude toward the prospect of an extended U.S. military presence.

Brennan argues that a lasting American presence would have bolstered Iraq’s fledgling security forces. As evidence, he cites a 2010 internal review by U.S. military planners that concluded that if U.S. troops withdrew completely by 2011, Iraq’s security forces would be unable to defend the country. But Brennan ignores public statements made by David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, two of the last U.S. military commanders in Iraq. In 2008, Petraeus told Congress that the performance of many Iraqi units was “solid.” Odierno, in media appearances in June 2009, went even further, claiming that Iraq’s military was ready to stand on its own. And in 2013, Petraeus wrote in Foreign Policy that Iraqi forces had capably taken charge of the country’s security by the time U.S. troops left in 2011.

In reality, the Iraqi army, like Iraq itself, unraveled not because of a lack of U.S. training or support but because of Maliki’s intransigence and methodical pursuit of sectarian interests. As Brennan acknowledges, Maliki gutted the Iraqi army’s officer corps, systematically replacing competent Sunni officers he mistrusted with incompetent Shiite ones he considered loyal. Maliki took a similar approach with the civil service, further marginalizing the country’s Sunni majority and Kurdish population. 

Despite Brennan’s claims, there is no evidence that a residual U.S. military presence would have reined in Maliki’s sectarianism. As Brennan himself admits, Maliki “failed to take any serious actions leading toward genuine Shiite-Sunni reconciliation.” For example, even during the temporary “surge” of U.S. forces beginning in 2007, when the United States had more than 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, and despite applying heavy pressure, U.S. officials failed to persuade Maliki to act on an arrest warrant for Lieutenant General Mahdi al-Gharawi, a Maliki ally who had been charged with running secret prisons and torturing detainees. Instead, Maliki promoted Gharawi, placing him in charge of Nineveh Province, where the strategically crucial city of Mosul is located. In June 2014, Gharawi abandoned his post when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, attacked the city.

When I met with Maliki in 2011, I asked him if there was anything more that U.S. President Barack Obama could have done to make it possible for a residual U.S. force to stay in Iraq. He answered no. If anyone jeopardized Iraq’s future, it was Maliki.

LAWRENCE J. KORB is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 1981 to 1985, he served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense.

BRENNAN REPLIES:

Lawrence Korb is correct that Nouri al-Maliki’s policies aggravated sectarian divisions in Iraq and contributed to the poor performance of the Iraqi military. But on a number of other points, he is wrong.

First, Korb suggests that public statements by two U.S. generals, David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, undermine my argument. But Petraeus and Odierno never asserted that the Iraqi military was capable of defending the country on its own. In April 2008, Petraeus did tell Congress that the performance of many Iraqi military units was “solid.” But in the same testimony, he also stated that Iraqi forces were “not yet ready to defend Iraq or maintain security throughout the country on their own.” In June 2009, Odierno told CNN that Iraqi forces were ready to take responsibility for conducting independent operations in major metropolitan areas, but he did not say that they could operate entirely without U.S. assistance. And in his 2013 essay for Foreign Policy, Petraeus noted only that Baghdad had “achieved slow but steady progress in building the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces” during the surge and that the Iraqi military had gradually assumed responsibility for the country’s security by 2011—not that Iraqi forces were prepared to succeed without U.S. support.

Moreover, from 2009 to 2011, the U.S. military continued to help Iraqi forces with training, logistics, maintenance, intelligence, and air support. Although U.S. military officials publicly applauded the capabilities of Iraqi troops, U.S. forces were always there to ensure that they didn’t fail. This “enabling support,” as U.S. officials called it, was available every day, at every level of command, in every Iraqi province, until the American withdrawal.

Second, Korb argues that the Iraqi parliament did not want a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq. This is an oversimplification. In October 2011, every member of parliament, with the exception of 40 members of a hard-line Shiite Islamist party, voted in favor of a continued U.S. troop presence—a position overwhelmingly supported by the Iraqi military. Due to domestic political considerations, however, only Kurdish parliamentarians were willing to take the political risk of publicly backing legal immunity for U.S. troops who stayed past 2011. The outcome might have been different had the Obama administration either started the negotiations earlier or been more willing to compromise. 

Third, Korb claims that a continued U.S. military presence would not have curbed Maliki’s sectarianism. It’s true that Maliki often ignored Washington’s wishes even when U.S. troops were present, but the United States frequently moderated Maliki’s most extreme sectarian tendencies. For example, Maliki refrained from issuing an arrest warrant for a key political rival, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, until the day after U.S. military forces departed the country.

Korb is right on one important count: Maliki holds a great deal of responsibility for jeopardizing Iraq’s future. But the Obama administration is also at fault—for failing to develop a coherent strategy to protect U.S. interests in Iraq and the region by safeguarding the hard-fought gains made during the eight years that U.S. forces spent in Iraq.

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