Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said during a speech Monday that Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq helped create the conditions necessary for ISIS. The Democratic establishment, in turn, spun out the narrative that it was then-President George W. Bush’s 2008 status of forces agreement that tied Obama’s hands.
The only trouble is the SOFA narrative is flat out false.
Bush’s 2008 status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government stated that “all the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” Even with the stated goal, the caveat was always that its execution would depend on the current status of ground operations.
Experts who served in Iraq at the time, along with several members of Obama’s own National Security Council, dispute the idea that a SOFA could not be renegotiated based on the situation on the ground at the time.
“This was not inevitable, nor pre-ordained,” wrote Emma Sky, a top adviser of Army Gen. Ray Odierno, about Obama’s precipitous withdrawal. In a 2015 Op-Ed for the New York Times largely focused on Syrian refugees, Sky laid out in stark terms just how much US “disengagement” damaged Iraq’s security stance:
What [Obama] fails to acknowledge is that after the colossal mistakes at the beginning of the Iraq war, the United States midwifed the emergence, from 2007 to 2009, of an inclusive political order and gained Sunni support to defeat Al Qaeda. The tragedy was that U.S. disengagement, and the overtly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, led it all to unravel.
Experts generally agree that the hasty retreat, both diplomatically and militarily, from Baghdad resulted in the isolation of Sunnis, the demoralization and corruption of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and what turned into fertile ground for ISIS’s initial rise.
Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s Secretary of State in 2008, noted in her memoirs that the SOFA was meant to be negotiated based on the political conditions in Iraq. Odierno, commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq at the time, told The New York Times “three years is a very long time” in the aftermath of the SOFA signing. Odierno’s comments indicate the Bush administration expected Obama to renegotiate the role of the U.S. in Iraq in 2011.
The U.S. military also strongly opposed complete withdrawal from Iraq at the time. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the ground commander of the Iraq War at the time, developed plans to keep 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011. The military believed it could continue its honest broker role, and maintain security should the security situation deteriorate.
Obama’s political appointee’s were reportedly highly suspicious of the military, thinking they were being forced to a Korea style permanent occupation, which Obama derided in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA Director and later as Secretary of Defense, publicly dissented with Obama’s decision to withdraw after leaving office. Panetta wrote in his post administration memoirs, “it was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability.”
To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.
Obama’s defender’s counter that they let the State Department lead negotiations with the Iraqi government for a revised SOFA, but were rebuffed by a reluctant Iraqi government. Panetta responds to these claims, saying The White House “never led” the negotiations, and that “without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away.”
Maliki’s government was anxious for the U.S. to leave to so it could begin the sectarian purges, the U.S. presence never allowed it pursue. Literally hours after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq, Maliki tried to imprison his Sunni Vice President on clearly nebulous charges.
Ali Khadery, the longest serving U.S. diplomat in Iraq, wrote in 2014 that after the U.S. withdrew “Maliki broke nearly every promise he made to share power with his political rivals,” just as he had warned the Obama administration in 2010. Khadery continues, “under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.”
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