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Who’s Really to Blame for the Withdrawal from Iraq?

4:31 PM, Nov 16, 2011 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Iraqi security issues in light of the fact that, come January, there will be virtually no U.S. troops stationed there. In what can only be described as a first-rate senatorial butt kicking, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took apart the two administration witnesses’ effort to explain why, after so much blood and treasure has been expended in creating a democratic Iraq, we’re now left with zero combat forces in country.

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The senator observed that the spin in Washington has been that most of the blame rests with the Iraqis and Iraqi politics—a spin the White House has been only too glad to have. But he then pointed out that the Kurds wanted American troops to stay, that the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Osama al-Najafi, the leading Sunni politician, had said he wanted U.S. forces to stay and, finally, that Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had stated the same. Sen. Graham then noted that, on a trip he had taken to Iraq this past May, he had been told by U.S. commander Gen. Lloyd Austin that Washington had not even given the Iraqi government an estimate of what troop levels the U.S. thought might be needed to continue to train Iraqi forces and work with them in dealing with the 1,000 al Qaeda estimated by then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency Panetta to be operating in Iraq. Pushed, Gen. Lloyd then told the senator that perhaps as many as 19,000 U.S. troops would be required to carry out those missions. So, as Sen. Graham drew the picture at the hearing—or, more accurately, tightened the noose around the witnesses’ necks—all the major players in Iraq were in favor of the U.S. staying, as was the American military, but somehow this administration couldn’t get an agreement on keeping troops in Iraq done?

Senator Graham: I’m getting a little concerned that all the blame on the Iraqi political system is maybe not quite fair. Secretary Panetta, you were a politician in another life. Would it be a political problem for President Obama to announce this year that we’re gonna keep 15,000 people in Iraq past 2012? Did that ever get considered in this administration? Did anybody ever talk about the numbers changing because the Democratic base would be upset if the President broke his campaign promise? Did that ever? 

Secretary Panetta: Not, not in any discussions that I participated in.

Graham: Do you think it ever happened anywhere? Do you think anybody in the White House ever wondered about the political effect of having troops in Iraq on the 2012 election? You talk openly about the Iraqis having political problems. You don’t think there’s any politics going on on our side?

Let me ask you about Afghanistan, General Dempsey. Did any commander recommend that all the surge forces be pulled out by September 2012?

Dempsey: I honestly don’t know Senator, but…

Graham: Well, let me tell you, the testimony is clear. No option was presented to the President in July to recover all surge forces by September 2012, and you put General Allen in a terrible spot, the administration has, and I think it’s no accident that the troops are coming home two months before it’s election in Afghanistan, and if you believe that to be true, as I do, I don’t think it’s an accident that we got to zero.

Well worth watching the whole thing (Graham’s exchange with Panetta and Dempsey begins at 132:45).

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