President Barack Obama blamed former President George W. Bush and Iraqi leaders for tying his hands on the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, at his last major national security address Tuesday.
Obama’s critics center on his withdrawal of forces from Iraq in 2011 as the decision most responsible for the rise of ISIS.
“We brought nearly 150,000 troops home from Iraq, consistent with the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the previous administration,” Obama told the audience, made up largely of military. Obama’s assertion resurrects a Democratic campaign talking point, often used by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, that Bush’s 2008 status of forces agreement (SOFA) tied Obama’s hands on Iraq.
Experts who served in Iraq at the time, along with 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.
“Obama didn’t try,” Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies Bill Roggio previously explained to TheDCNF continuing “there certainly were restrictions with the agreement that was in place, [but] they just didn’t want to do it.” Leon Panetta, Obama’s own CIA director at the time of the withdrawal, publicly dissented with Obama’s decision to withdraw writing, “it was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability.”
Obama pushed back against accusations that he did not try too keep forces in Iraq in his Tuesday speech saying:
There’s been a debate about ISIL that’s focused on whether a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq back in 2011 could have stopped the threat of ISIL from growing. And as a practical matter, this was not an option. By 2011, Iraqis wanted our military presence to end, and they were unwilling to sign a new Status of Forces Agreement to protect our troops from prosecution if they were trying to defend themselves in Iraq.
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.” The U.S. military 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.
Experts generally agree that the hasty retreat 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 — both diplomatically and militarily.
“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.”
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