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Lost chances of America's last months in Iraq

By Michael R. Gordon

New York Times


The request was an unusual one, and President Barack Obama himself made the confidential phone call to Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president.

Marshaling his best skills at persuasion, Obama asked Talabani, a consummate political survivor, to give up his post. It was Nov. 4, 2010, and the plan was for Ayad Allawi to take Talabani’s place.

With Allawi, a secular Shiite and the leader of a bloc with broad Sunni support, the Obama administration calculated, Iraq would have a more inclusive government and would check the worrisome drift toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But Obama did not make the sale.

“They were afraid what would happen if the different groups of Iraq did not reach an agreement,” recalled Talabani, who turned down the request.

Obama has pointed to the U.S. troop withdrawal last year as proof that he has fulfilled his promise to end the Iraq war. Winding down a conflict, however, entails far more than extracting troops. In the case of Iraq, the U.S. goal has been to leave a stable and representative government, avoid a power vacuum that neighboring states and terrorists could exploit and maintain sufficient influence so that Iraq would be a partner or, at a minimum, not an opponent in the Middle East.

But the Obama administration has fallen frustratingly short of some of those objectives.

The attempt by Obama and his senior aides to fashion an extraordinary power-sharing arrangement between al-Maliki and Allawi never materialized. Neither did an agreement that would have kept a small U.S. force in Iraq to train the Iraqi military and patrol the country’s skies. A plan to use U.S. civilians to train the Iraqi police has been severely cut back. The result is an Iraq that is less stable domestically and less reliable internationally than the U.S. had envisioned.

The story of these efforts has received little attention in a nation weary of the long conflict in Iraq, and administration officials have rarely talked about them. This account is based on interviews with many of the principals, both in Washington and Baghdad.

White House officials portray their exit strategy as a success, asserting that the number of civilian fatalities in Iraq is low compared with 2006, when the war was at its height. Politics, not violence, has become the principal means for Iraqis to resolve their differences, they say.

“Recent news coverage of Iraq would suggest that as our troops departed, American influence went with them and our administration shifted its focus away from Iraq,” Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said in a speech in March. “The fact is, our engagements have increased.”

To many Iraqis, the United States’ influence is greatly diminished.

“American policy is very weak,” observed Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. “It is not clear to us how they have defined their interests in Iraq,” Hussein said. “They are picking events and reacting on the basis of events. That is the policy.”


As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had one basic position on Iraq — he was going to bring a “responsible end” to the conflict. He vowed to remove all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months, a deadline that enabled him to outflank his main rival in the Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton, but which the military said was too risky. Once in office, he adjusted the withdrawal schedule, keeping U.S. brigades in place longer but making their primary mission to advise Iraqi forces.

All U.S. forces were to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the departure date set in an agreement signed by President George W. Bush and al-Maliki in 2008. Even so, Obama left the door open to keeping troops in Iraq to train Iraqi forces if an agreement could be negotiated.

The situation the Obama administration inherited was complex. Many Iraqi politicians were worried that al-Maliki, a Shiite, was amassing too much power and overstepping the Iraqi Constitution by bypassing the formal military chain of command and seeding intelligence agencies with loyalists. Those concerns were aggravated by the political gridlock that plagued Baghdad after the March 2010 elections.

Convening a videoconference on Oct. 6, 2010, Biden and top U.S. officials reviewed the options. The vice president favored a plan that would keep al-Maliki as prime minister, but which involved installing his main rival, Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya bloc, near the top of the pyramid.

To make way for Allawi, Biden suggested that Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, be shifted from the presidency and given another position. “Let’s make him foreign minister,” Biden said, according to the notes of the meeting.

“Thanks a lot, Joe,” Clinton said, noting that Biden had cast the Foreign Ministry as a consolation prize.

Biden also predicted that the Americans could work out a deal with a government led by al-Maliki. “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise,” Biden said. “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate.

James B. Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, questioned whether Biden’s plan would make the already inefficient Iraqi government more dysfunctional, and suggested an alternative to al-Maliki: Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite and former finance minister. A quiet U.S. effort to explore this option was made, but Iran opposed it and, thus, so did hard-line Shiite figures.

Concerned about the need to seat an Iraqi government, Obama decided to accept al-Maliki as prime minister while pursuing a deal that would bring Allawi and other members of his Iraqiya bloc into the fold.

But engineering a power-sharing arrangement was not easy. After Talabani rebuffed Obama’s request, the White House decided to go around him.

In a letter to Barzani, Obama again argued that Talabani should give up the presidency and noted the help the U.S. would continue to provide to the Kurds. But Barzani rejected the proposal, complaining that he was being asked to solve a problem between Shiite and Sunni Arabs at the expense of the Kurds.

The Americans had a fallback position: A new council on strategic policy would be established, with Allawi in charge. But al-Maliki and Allawi wrangled over what powers the new council would have and it was never formed.

Some members of Allawi’s party secured prominent government posts. But the most important feature the White House had pressed for in a power-sharing arrangement existed only on paper.


As the process of forming a new Iraqi government dragged on, the Obama administration began in January 2011 to turn its attention to negotiating an agreement that would enable U.S. forces to stay beyond 2011.

The first talks the Americans had were among themselves. Pentagon officials had gotten an earful from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, which were worried that the U.S. was pulling back from the region. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates favored leaving 16,000 troops to train the Iraqi forces, prepare them to carry out counterterrorism missions, protect Iraqi airspace, tamp down Arab and Kurdish tensions and to maintain U.S. influence in the region.

But the White House, looking toward Obama’s re-election campaign, had a much lower number in mind. At a meeting on April 29, Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, put Gates on the spot and asked if he could accept up to 10,000 troops. Gates agreed.

Concerned that decisions were being made without careful consideration of all the military factors, Mullen sent a classified letter to Donilon that recommended keeping 16,000 troops.

“In light of the risks noted above and the opportunities that might emerge, that is my best military advice to the president,” he wrote. He added that the recommendation was supported by Gen. Lloyd Austin, U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. James N. Mattis, head of Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East.

Mullen’s letter arrived with a thud at the White House. An angry Donilon complained about it in a phone call to Michele A. Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy. But she responded that Mullen had a professional responsibility to provide his independent advice. She did not see her role as ensuring that only politically acceptable advice was provided to the White House. Donilon declined to be interviewed, and his spokesman insisted that his discussions with the Pentagon concerned military issues, not politics.

Obama overruled Mullen, setting the stage for the negotiations over the troops.


In a June 2 videoconference with al-Maliki, the president emphasized that any agreement would need to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament. But not everybody in the U.S. camp agreed with this stipulation.

Brett H. McGurk, a former Bush administration aide whom the Obama administration had asked to return to Baghdad to help with the talks, thought that a bruising parliamentary battle could be avoided by working out an understanding under an existing umbrella agreement on economic and security cooperation — an approach al-Maliki himself suggested several times.

But the White House wanted airtight immunities for any troops staying in Iraq, which U.S. government lawyers, the Iraqi chief justice and James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, insisted would require a new agreement, endorsed by the Iraqi Parliament.

The negotiations were complicated by the Americans’ failure to midwife a power-sharing arrangement. With Iraqi leaders jockeying for influence and Allawi still out of the government, neither al-Maliki nor his rival wanted to stick his neck out by supporting a continuing U.S. military presence, no matter how small.

The White House, meanwhile, wanted to avoid any perception that it was chasing after an agreement to keep troops in Iraq after promising that combat forces would be brought home. By August, White House aides were pressing to scale back the mission and to reopen the issue of how many troops might be needed.

Clinton and Leon E. Panetta, who succeeded Gates as the defense secretary, argued that talks should continue and that the goal, as before, should be to keep a force of up to 10,000.

On Aug. 13, Obama settled the matter in a conference call in which he ruled out the 10,000 troop option and a smaller 7,000 variant. The talks would proceed but the size of the force the U.S. might keep was shrunk: The new goal would be a continuous presence of about 3,500 troops, a rotating force of up to 1,500 and half a dozen F-16s.

But there was no agreement. Some experts say that given the Iraqis’ concerns about sovereignty, and Iranian pressure, the politicians in Baghdad were simply not prepared to take the hard political decisions that were needed to secure parliamentary approval. Others say the Iraqis sensed the Americans’ ambivalence and were being asked to make unpopular political decisions for a modest military benefit.


On Oct. 21, Obama held another videoconference with al-Maliki — his first such discussion since the
talks began in June. The negotiations were over, and all of the U.S. troops would be coming home.

The White House insisted that the collapse of the talks was not a setback. “As we reviewed the
10,000 option, we came to the conclusion that achieving the goal of a security partnership was not dependent on the size of our footprint in-country, and that stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces,” a senior Obama administration said.

It is too soon to fully assess that prediction. But tensions there have increased to the point that Barzani, has insisted that al-Maliki be replaced and Iraq’s lone Sunni vice president has taken refuge in Turkey to avoid arrest.

Without U.S. forces to train and assist Iraqi commandos, the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq is still active in Iraq and is increasingly involved in Syria. With no U.S. aircraft to patrol Iraqi airspace, Iraq has become a corridor for Iranian flights of military supplies to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria, U.S. officials say. It is also a potential avenue for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, a scenario the White House is laboring to avoid.

Ryan C. Crocker, the former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, offered his own perspective on the last tortured negotiations in the country where U.S. troops fought for more than eight years.

“I don’t think either government handled it as well as it could have been handled,” he said. “The U.S. side came to it late. You have got to leave a lot of latitude for difficulties, foreseen and unforeseen. On the Iraqi side, they should have said, ‘If you want this don’t try to determine our procedures.”’

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