WASHINGTON—The decision to pull American troops out of Iraq by the end of the year is partially because it is not in the Middle Eastern country’s political interest for the U.S. to be there, top U.S. officials said at a committee hearing Nov. 15.
The other reason is because the American military is not guaranteed protection in the region, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, said it was strong belief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the U.S. should not leave armed forces in Iraq without any security.
“Our recommendation was for a small permanent footprint and a rotation training,” he said.
Whether a U.S. presence continues in Iraq or not, the two nations’ futures are “inextricably linked,” Dempsey said. The U.S. will put joint U.S. contractor and Iraqi military checkpoints as well as a coordinating center in place in Iraq, and thus will not completely remove its footprint from the area, he said. The State Department plans to contract roughly 5,000 American security personnel who will protect areas including the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
The Iraqi military is very capable of fixing and finishing a mission, but not so adept at finding and exploiting an enemy, Dempsey said. The latter two will remain weaknesses for Iraq in the future.
“We are not completely removing ourselves,” he said. “Our presence in the coordination center provides a stabilizing influence. America’s Armed Forces are proud to be part of the effort.”
Though throughout the hearing it remained unclear exactly what exactly Iraq’s political interests are. Much of the committee’s discussion focused on the fractured communication between the Iraqi and U.S. governments over the number of American troops that would remain in Iraq.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said part of the reason why a decision was never reached was because the Iraqi government never gave the U.S. a solid answer.
“It was very difficult to try and find out exactly the Iraqi position was,” Panetta said.
“We never came to the point where they said, ‘we want this many troops here.’”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the blame also belonged to the U.S., who he said didn’t present a firm number to the Iraqi government.
“How can you expect the Iraqis to agree when we didn’t even come up with a proposal?” he asked the committee witnesses.
Some said that the withdrawal of American troops was misguided and premature.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D, Conn., said it was his expectation that a residual force would remain in Iraq.
“We had invested so much blood and treasure that it wouldn’t make sense to just pick up and leave unless we felt that the country was fully prepared to protect their country,” he said.
Lieberman said the lack of an agreement, which caused the total withdrawal of American troops by December 31, was not a success but a failure.
Though McCain said he is eager to bring the troops home, he said there is still a lot of work to be done for troops in the Middle East, such as in the Iraqi Air Force and airspace protection.
“For all the progress we’ve made in recent years, they still have some critical gaps in their capabilities that will go beyond this year,” he said. “And we have a solemn responsibility to stay committed to Iraq’s success.”
Panetta said there are obviously concerns about Iraq’s future, including Arab/Kurd tensions and extremism, and no doubt a lot of pressure has been brought upon the Iraqis.
“The bottom line is that this is not about us,” he said. “It’s about what the Iraqis want to do and the decisions they want to make.”