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Fri. December 09, 2022
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The American Withdrawal from Iraq: The Debate
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By Dr. Erik Lindell

The “who lost Iraq” blame game has begun in earnest.  Conservatives have attacked the Obama Administration for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.  It was premature, they argue, and contend that the current mess in Iraq, with the terrorist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) now taking control of Mosul and other cities in Northern Iraq, is attributable to this disastrous decision by the President.[1]  With no American troops left after 2011 the political leverage of the U.S. diminished accordingly, leaving free -for- all sectarian clashes in its wake. Senator John McCain has been the most vocal critic of the President on this point, even claiming that the war had been “won” until the Obama Administration foolishly pulled all the troops out.

The President’s supporters, on the other hand, point out that the Obama Administration’s hands were tied politically, as the withdrawal timetable was set by the Security Agreement signed by President Bush with the Maliki Government in 2008.  President Obama tried to negotiate a new agreement that would have left a residual military force, they continue, but neither the Maliki government nor the Iraqi parliament would agree to legal immunity for American troops.  This was the deal breaker as neither the U.S. military nor the Obama Administration was willing to leave American troops in Iraq without legal protection from the politicized Iraqi judicial system.

If it wasn’t for the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in the first place, the Democrats continue, Iraq would not be undergoing the current process of violent disintegration.  This is the “original sin” argument that many Democrats resort to when unsure of what policy path to support in Iraq now that the country is imploding and American troops have vacated the premises.  Regardless of the merits or demerits of the initial 2003 invasion, the Republicans answer back, the 2011 withdrawal decision was foolish as Iraqi democracy was not secured and stability was shaky at best.  A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was possible with the Iraqi Government but a feckless, disengaged President blew the opportunity due to his predisposition in favor of total withdrawal.  Or so the Republicans argue.

Nuance is unfortunately missing from both partisan narratives.  As for the Obama Administration, it is certainly guilty of a combination of wishful thinking and political expediency.  The President assured the American people in late 2011 that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self- reliant Iraq.”  Then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made similar claims.  In 2011 Senate Hearings Panetta claimed that Iraq was “an emerging source of stability” and “an emerging democracy” where extremists “do not enjoy widespread support.”  He added that Iraqis have the “most capable counterterrorism forces in the region.”[2]   Yet as soon as U.S. troops had exited, Prime Minister Maliki consolidated power and fanned sectarian warfare, while Sunni suicide bombers and Shiite militias expanded their violent assaults.            

Democrats and the Left enthusiastically bought into the Administration’s fanciful description of a “stable” Iraq (or in some instances realized that it was incorrect but had no desire to prolong the U.S. troop presence) as it justified the complete withdrawal of American forces, which was a long standing goal of both the Democrats and the President.  After all, the President had forcefully laid out his plan for withdrawal in one of his very first speeches upon taking office: “Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

And once the mission was finally accomplished (the end of 2011) and the forces withdrawn, President Obama was quick to take credit, despite the fact that he was only carrying out an agreement that had been finalized by the previous Administration and Prime Minister Maliki.  In the heat of an election year (2012), Obama proudly celebrated his role in the withdrawal and the ending of the Iraq war, an objective he had promoted since he was a Senator.  “We did it” was his constant refrain.

In a notable exchange during a 2012 Presidential debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney queried whether President Obama had wanted a SOFA with Iraq.  “You and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement,” to which the President responded, “no, but what I – what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down.  That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.”

Yet as Iraq unraveled over the course of 2014, with ISIS carving out Iraqi territory for its proposed Islamic Caliphate, the President now attributed all responsibility for the withdrawal to Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush.  When asked at a June 2014 press conference whether he wished he had left a residual U.S. force in Iraq, the President said “well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me, that was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”  In response to the same question at an August 9th press conference, President Obama once again fingered Maliki’s role but also highlighted the Bush Administration’s responsibility:  “Under the previous Administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected government.”

Moreover, as Senator John McCain has pointed out, no American military commanders favored a total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, including such heavyweights as Generals David Petraeus, Ray Odierno, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey.[3]  Without the U.S. presence to mediate disputes between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as Arabs and Kurds, to pressure Maliki to conciliate, to provide training and intelligence to Iraqi forces, and to counter meddlesome Iranian influence, it was feared that the Iraqi political cauldron would boil over.  

Yet to attribute all responsibility to Obama for the failure to deliver a new SOFA with Iraq is misguided.  The Iraqis, across the board, had little stomach for a continuing and seemingly indefinite occupation of their country by American troops.  Even the prior Security Agreement negotiations of 2008, which extended legal protection for American troops until the withdrawal at the end of 2011, were rancorous and difficult according to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  The obstacles to success were, according to Gates, “daunting” because of strong opposition from several quarters, especially from the Iranian-supported Shia bloc.[4]

Emma Sky, the chief political advisor to General Ray Odierno (who replaced General Petraeus in 2008) confirms how difficult the 2008 negotiations were.  Sky notes that Iraqi officials bargained “tenaciously” and extracted significant concessions from the Bush Administration, including winning greater control over U.S. military forces.  The primary right to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers who committed “grave premeditated felonies” would now be transferred into Iraqi hands, a decision which met with little enthusiasm from the U.S. military. Slowly but surely, sovereignty was starting to flow back into the hands of the Iraqis.

When the negotiations began anew in 2011 for a follow on agreement that would keep a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq, as well as provide them with legal immunity, there was even greater opposition within Iraq than there had been in 2008.  President Bush had, after all, set the political table by creating the expectation of a full withdrawal.  In addition, U.S. leverage over Iraq had diminished since the 2008 agreement was cobbled together as the drawdown of American forces had steadily continued since that agreement was inked.  By 2010 U.S. troop levels were down to approximately 46,000. For all of these reasons, President Obama had a weaker hand to play.

Critics have pointed out that the Administration nevertheless negotiated poorly and failed to settle upon a precise number of troops that would remain in Iraq under the new SOFA, with the Obama national security team wrestling with numbers that ranged from 5,000 to around 16,000.  Without offering Maliki a concrete proposal with set troop numbers, Senator McCain has argued, it is little wonder that an accord was never signed.

Yet this is largely beside the point as is McCain’s claim that a SOFA could have been signed as an executive agreement between Maliki and the Obama Administration, circumventing the opposition in the Iraqi parliament in the process.[5]  A large bloc of Iraqis, especially among the pro-Iranian, Shiite Sadrists[6], was opposed to any American troops remaining in the country or even in the Gulf region for that matter.  Moreover,  Brett McGurk , who was involved in negotiating with the Iraqi leadership during both the Bush and Obama administrations, points out that even the most anti-Iranian leaders in Parliament - who were Sunnis - also failed to support  legal immunity for U.S. troops.[7]  For the Obama Administration to simply ignore the fierce opposition in Parliament and have the safety and legal status of American troops hanging on the slender reed of an executive agreement with the unpredictable Iraqi Prime Minister would not only have been illegal, according to U.S. and Iraqi legal experts, but would have inflamed anti-American sentiment in Iraq as well.

The bottom line is that legal immunity for U.S. troops had been provided by the Iraqi Parliament in the 2008 security agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration.  Now that same Parliament was unwilling to renew it.  James Jeffries, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the time, has noted that “only the Kurdish parties, about 20 percent of the parliament at best, supported parliament-granted legal immunities for U.S. military personnel.”  Without that immunity for American troops and the protection it provided from the criminal jurisdiction of Iraqi courts, there could be no agreement and hence no continuation of the American presence.  McCain’s position, along with other Republicans, was basically that the Obama Administration should have forced the medicine down Iraqi throats, whether they wanted a continuing American occupation or not, by ignoring Parliamentary opposition.

Also, it is not clear whether a small contingent of American troops, whose major role would have been to train Iraqi forces, would have been able to thwart the darker political designs of Maliki or keep a lid on sectarian conflict.  After all, the major political fault lines which reinforced sectarian distrust between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shiites, were unresolved at the end of 2011 when American troops headed home.  No agreement had been reached on either the federal structure of Iraq, meaning how much power and autonomy Sunni controlled provinces such as Anbar would have in the political system, or on the distribution of oil revenues between the Sunni Kurds in the Northeast, the Shiites in the South, and the Sunni Arab tribes in the North.  Exactly how would a skeleton force of American soldiers, somewhere in the six to ten thousand range, force Prime Minister Maliki to resolve these critical issues when no prior pressure from a robust U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Iraq had been able to do so?

The Obama Administration’s critics contend that the U.S., by not securing a SOFA, forfeited Iraq to the Iranians.  Yet they ignore the fact that Maliki was already indebted to the Iranians and the Sadrists for their efforts to secure him a second premiership and keep him in power.  The quid pro quo for this political backing, as Emma Sky notes, was Maliki’s support for the removal of all U.S. forces.  Moreover, the Iraqi leadership is well aware of geopolitical realities, that when the dust is settled and the U.S. slowly drifts away from its partnership with Iraq, that Iraq will be forced to find accommodation with the revolutionary Iranian state perched on its borders.

Finally, whatever transpires in Iraq as the war with ISIS heats up, it is safe to say that the failure of the Obama Administration to secure a SOFA with Iraq in 2011 will, in the long term, amount to little more than a footnote in the history of America’s ill-conceived intervention in Iraq.  The attempt by the critics of the Obama Administration to elevate the strategic significance of this failed diplomatic initiative, and to find in it the seeds of Iraq’s current disintegration, is both exaggerated and politically self-serving.  For the current problems in Iraq are due to the failure of the Maliki regime to share power with the Sunnis combined with the civil war in neighboring Syria that spilled into Iraq.  The Maliki Government, in turn, created fertile political soil for ISIS to take root among disaffected Iraqi Sunnis. A SOFA and a residual U.S. troop presence would hardly have been sufficient to alter this unfortunate course of events


[1] ISIS is also referred to as the Islamic State, as well as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)

[2]Hearing, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, “Security Issues Relating to Iraq,” November 5, 2011, Statement of Leon Panetta, p.10

[3] Ibid., p. 5

[4] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,2014), p.235-238

[5] Hearings, “Security Issues Relating to Iraq,” p. 18

[6] The Sadrists are the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

[7] Hearings “Security Issues Relating to Iraq, p. 55


Erik Lindell is a Political Scientist (Ph.D. in International Relations) and former academic, having taught at several colleges and universities in New York State, both full time and as an adjunct. He currently performs freelance writing and research.

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