Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Exit Music: Did Obama Bungle the Iraq Withdrawal?

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Exit Music: Did Obama Bungle the Iraq Withdrawal?

Article excerpt

Blame Game

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 flexibility 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 leftin 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. …

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