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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post Leon Panetta on US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq
Created by John Eipper on 10/09/14 5:23 AM

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Leon Panetta on US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq (Vincent Littrell, USA, 10/09/14 5:23 am)

Back on 21 June 2014, I wrote the following about the 2011 withdrawal of US forces from Iraq:

"Regarding the collapse of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) deal that led to the total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq: At the end of 2011, I was immersed as a staff field-grade officer with some exposure to political and administrative currents dealing with these very issues. I can say as one who had a fairly close-up view of the goings on, that the politics for a total withdrawal seemed to be utterly dominant. It was my strong sense that energies through 2011 were devoted to getting out of Iraq, pure and simple. Yes, negotiations for the SOFA were under way, but I was of the opinion that these efforts were given short shrift, and senior-level patience for anything to slow the process of withdrawal was low. Anybody who has spent time in the Middle East and South Asia knows that bargaining and compromise, even amongst high government officials, is a way of life. I am reasonably certain that had the United States government wanted to come to an arrangement with the Maliki government about the nexus between Iraqi legalities and American troops, a deal could indeed have been made. I've bargained and bantered with too many from that part of the world to not believe that." (See: http://www.waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=86081&objectTypeId=73926&topicId=44 )

We now read that former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (who was the Secretary of Defense I worked under when I was in the Pentagon) wanted to leave some troops in Iraq as well. He stated, "My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country [Iraq--VL] split apart or slid back into the violence that we'd seen in the years immediately following the US invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the US." The USA Today article discussing Panetta's new book further states, "Panetta writes that 'the president's team at the White House pushed back' on requests to retain some US troops in Iraq, and 'the differences occasionally became heated.' He adds: 'Those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.'" (See: http://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2014/10/02/obama-leon-panetta-iraq-robert-gates-hillary-clinton-books/16600303/ )

I found Panetta's writing validating for me personally. In 2011, from where I sat as an Action Officer in the Pentagon, I thought a terrible mistake was being made to withdraw all troops from Iraq. I couldn't understand why the senior Defense Department leadership wasn't pushing back at this awful decision. It turns out that they were, and I didn't know it. However, upon reflection, it strikes me that the then Iraqi government had many pressures being placed on it from relevant in-country and regional power brokers not to sign the SOFA agreement. Thus, my above comment on the bargaining, compromising culture of the Middle East, though true, may have been superseded by other considerations. Also, as I have mentioned in a past WAIS post, the premature handing off of sovereignty to the nascent Iraqi government in 2004 was in my view a significant error. Iraq at that time wasn't ready for even the facade of self-governance, and the Coalition Provisional Authority in reality necessarily ruled the country at that time. It was a terrible error to give Iraq the trappings of sovereignty at that time, and I think that occurrence likely played a part in setting things up for the 2011 troop withdrawal debacle.

I think, in ideal terms, that something else should have been worked out politically by the Bush administration regarding the establishment of the Iraqi government. Instead of thinking in terms of timelines to meet milestones (like Iraqi sovereignty) for partisan political purposes, they should have been thinking in terms of "capacity to govern."

Yesterday CNN commented on Panetta:

"Panetta told CNN the White House did not use its power to pressure al-Maliki enough.

"'What I'm saying is that Maliki was the kind of leader that you had to constantly put pressure on to direct him in the right direction,' he said. 'We had, with Iraq--made a commitment with regards to military assistance, F-16 fighter planes, other types of military aid, that I think if we had said, "Look, you know, if you're not gonna give us--the agreement that we need to maintain our forces there, you know, we may not provide this kind of assistance."' The White House, he said, needed to do more 'to try to push him.'

"'You need to threaten guys like that, who won't come along. And everybody knew that,' he said. 'I think what happened was--is that because Maliki kept resisting this effort, that there was a sense that, "Look, why should we want this more than the Iraqis want this?" And if they're--if they're putting up a fuss about this, then--we might as well just pick up and leave.'"

(See: http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/politics/panetta-disagreements-obama-borger-interview/index.html?hpt=hp_t1 )

I think Panetta's above comment interesting. Who is to say that such threatening wouldn't have worked in the short term to get the SOFA signed? However, it would have led to other complex problems in light of the Coalition Forces' lack of aggressive action in 2011 in the face of attacks against Americans and Westerners at the close of that year. US forces remaining in Iraq at that time tended to hunker down in their FOBs. They weren't going after attackers with the intensity they had even a year or two before. Momentum for getting out was likely impacting effective combat action to protect American forces in the country.

If Panetta's threat tactics against the Maliki government had of been implemented and a residual US force had stayed in Iraq, a good commander, with good relations with the Iraqi Security Forces commanders, free to conduct necessary combat operations against attackers, whomever they were, needed to have been in place. It is my opinion that US/Coalition/UN forces remaining in Iraq in the conditions that existed in 2011 would have still been fraught with terrible problems. Nonetheless, advisors were needed at major echelons of the Iraqi security forces, while senior civilian advisors were needed at the highest levels of government in Iraq to interdict Maliki's sectarian policies.

This points back to just how much of a mistake it was to give "sovereignty" back to Iraq in 2004. In even broader terms, this gets to the problem of domestic partisan politics driving security strategy. We didn't learn our lesson from Vietnam. A culture of partisan domestic politics hindering military effectiveness and capability dominates. This is sad, when long-term, delicate strategies coupled with a strong military are needed now. Both President Bush's handing off of sovereignty to Iraq so quickly and President Obama's 2011 withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq, as I understand these events, present examples of the problem of domestic politics driving on-the-ground strategy to obstructing and unnecessary complexity or outright failure. As long as Presidents do this with such blatant disregard for on-the-ground realities, Americans and associated coalitions will have a hard time effectively conducting the operations and executing the actions necessary to maintain global stability and prevent evil outgrowths like ISIS, Boko Haram, failed states, various forms of empowered terrorism, etc.

The sometimes necessary reality of war being "a cornerstone to peace" is undermined by this "politics of the part" eroding a unified strategy necessary for the benefit of the collective whole. Another case in point of this "politics of the part" driving and eroding at military strategy is the current refusal by President Obama to put any ground troops to coordinate with the air forces combating ISIL. Anybody with any modern military understanding knows the critical importance of ground and air coordination in combined arms warfare. Combined arms warfare is necessary to bring combat power with the most precision and intensity possible. This isn't even debatable. Yet, domestic political considerations not based in holistic strategy trump what military professionals and even bi-partisan leaders and major figures (including former President Jimmy Carter) see as necessary strategy. This undermines the national and coalition effort to degrade ISIS.

One thing President Obama has done right in all of this is bring together the coalition of nations currently bombing in Syria and Iraq. Collective security actions like this are the future of war and a sign of mankind's continuing maturation.

Former President Carter stated, "You have to have somebody on the ground to direct our missiles and to be sure you have the right target," Carter said. "Then you have to have somebody to move in and be willing to fight ISIS after the strikes." Indeed so Mr. President, indeed so. (See: http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/08/politics/jimmy-carter-obama-isis/index.html?hpt=hp_t2 )

JE comments:  I don't think there's any question that the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq was a mistake, although others will add that the 2003 invasion was the bigger mistake.  In his thoughtful analysis, Vincent Littrell shows just one more example of domestic politics trumping sound military strategy.  We could make a list that goes back centuries, perhaps millennia.  One example comes to mind:  the mighty British Empire was certainly capable of defeating those pesky American insurrectionists, but they lost the political will to do so.


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  • US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq; 2014 Mid-Term Elections (Richard Hancock, USA 10/09/14 4:13 PM)
    I certainly agree with Vincent Littrell's post (9 October), and also with Leon Panetta's statement that he opposed the withdrawal from Iraq. I find several comments in the press and on TV that indicate that the bad turn that we have recently experienced in foreign policy is going to affect the outcome of the election this November, just 25 days from now.



    An October 8 article in the Wall Street Journal by Michael R. Crittenden entitled, "Facing Longer Odds, Democrats Shift Funds," states that Democrats are shifting funds from candidates that are considered lost causes to other states in hopes of limiting Republican gains in both the House and Senate. He quotes former Virginia Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who once led the Democratic National Committee, as saying, "The House? We'll probably lose 10 seats." The Democrats have pulled money out of districts in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Iowa to help candidates where no incumbent is running. Mr. Crittenden concludes that Islamic State militants and the Ebola outbreak have pulled voter attention away from Democrats' core domestic icon message.



    I think that adverse foreign affairs giving Democrats trouble are unlikely to improve by election day. It seems to me that there is almost no chance that the Democrats can gain in the House and a fair possibility that the Republicans will either gain control of the Senate or at least gain additional seats there. Such is the result of Obama's policy of "leading from behind."

    JE comments: Ah, but Richard: the President's party nearly always loses ground during the mid-term elections.  And a similar triage is happening on the Republican side:  just yesterday the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled the plug on Terry Lynn Land (R), who is running for Michigan's open Senate seat (the one vacated by Carl Levin).

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  • US Troop Withdrawal from Iraq; The US Failed to Make Friends (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 10/12/14 4:06 AM)

    I read with great attention Vincent Littrell's post of 9 October. Vincent's points make a lot of good sense for a military leader of the Empire who does not care too much about the feelings of the colonials. Every word is correct from this point of view.


    Fortunately, John E commented, "others will add that the 2003 invasion [of Iraq] was the bigger mistake [than the 2011 withdrawal]." Until this fact is generally recognised, there is no hope.


    Not only was the unprovoked self-destructive 2003 invasion of Iraq a terrible mistake, but so was the war of 17 January 1991. At least the overkill of Iraqi troops was a mistake, when following the cease-fire of 22 February they were withdrawing from the so-called state of Kuwait. Remember the Highway of Death? Perhaps even worse was the installation of the No Fly Zone plus the sanctions that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially children.


    After all, considering the proxy war waged by Saddam against Iran and the statements of the US Ambassador, the return of Kuwait to Iraq was possible.  Remember the position of Kassem/Qasim in 1963.  I had been in Kuwait just shortly before that.


    About the Iraq-Iran war, an Italian magazine printed an interesting cartoon. In it the US diplomats are in jail in Tehran.  One them looks outside and exclaims: Our men are arriving to free us!  Another asks: It is the US Marines? and the other responds: No it is the Iraqis.


    Vincent also makes a very good point about bargaining. An Arab merchant will be very disappointed if a customer agrees to buy at the first stated price, as he enjoys more the bargain than the sale.


    Another peculiarity: The American will fire a friend if required by the business, just saying sorry, Joe, nothing personal it is just business, but for the Arabs it would be almost impossible to fire a friend, even if the business requires it. If you ask to an Arab to do something because it is written in a contract, he will not be enthusiastic, but if you show him that you are his friend and you respect him he will go through hell for you.


    Bottom line: very unfortunately the Americans failed to make friendships with most of the Arabs.  Of course the Palestine problems have a great influence too.


    JE comments:  Eugenio Battaglia describes what the Latin Americans call personalismo, the idea that individual loyalties, influence, and power trump laws and institutions.  But does Eugenio oversimplify when he says the Americans didn't make "friends" among the Arab people?  Isn't the real problem that you cannot make friends with all of them--which requires you to take sides?  (In Iraq under Maliki, this involved "picking" the Shiites over the Sunnis, for example.)


    A related question, of the HR variety:  have you ever had to fire a friend?  I have not.  Fortunately in the academic field, we are never in a position to fire anybody.


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