Conflict continues in Iraq
When President Barack Obama entered office in 2009, he immediately put the wheels in motion to ratchet back U.S. involvement in Iraq, where about 150,000 troops were deployed. The last convoy of U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, and Obama cast the moment as a success.
"The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition," Obama said in an October 2011 statement. "The tide of war is receding. The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al-Qaida and achieve major victories against its leadership — including Osama bin Laden."
Ending the war was a signature component of Obama's 2008 campaign platform. Amid the transition out of Iraq, we rated the promise a Promise Kept.
But just a couple of years later, it became abundantly clear that all was not well in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki started to show signs of authoritarianism, suppressing Sunni voices in the government. Radical Islamic fighters affiliated with al-Qaida, calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gained ground by capitalizing on a lack of effective government leadership in Iraq and its neighbor to the west, Syria. And the Iraqi military started to crumble, putting up little resistance as ISIS easily captured territory, notably the city of Mosul in 2014.
"Iraq is significantly worse than when he took office," said Stephen Biddle, who advised the Bush administration in Iraq and the Obama administration in Afghanistan.
The 2011 troop withdrawal is not the sole reason ISIS was able to thrive amid so much unrest. It is reasonable, though, to consider that had Obama been able to leave a significant American presence in Iraq, or had he intervened in Syria's conflict early on, ISIS would not have been able to strengthen so rapidly.
"When the U.S. left Iraq, the message we sent to everybody in Iraq is that we don't care about the outcome anymore," said Kori Schake, who served as director for Defense Strategy and Requirements on the National Security Council under Bush. "ISIS realized, 'We're not going to have to fight the United States.' "
At the end of his presidency, Obama will be able to say he ended the military operation in Iraq that he inherited in 2009, Operation Iraqi Freedom. He leaves behind, however, a new one: Operation Inherent Resolve, launched in 2014 to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with the United States acting as the main driver of a 60-member coalition.
And while there are far fewer U.S. soldiers in Iraq than when Obama entered office — about 5,000 — the number keeps creeping up. Notably, hundreds of U.S. troops have advised and assisted Iraqi forces in the battle to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS, which began in October.
Some of Obama's defenders argue that the current level of American military engagement is more sustainable than it was eight years ago, and Obama deserves credit for responding to geopolitical reality while using as little force as possible. Any president would have had to deal with the political upheavals in Iraq that were, to some extent, unpredictable, said Anthony Cordesman, a consultant of the State Department and the Defense Department under Bush and Obama.
Obama himself said recently that countries like Iraq, to a certain extent, have to solve their own problems instead of relying on the United States going forward.
This doesn't change the fact that the U.S. military remains entangled in war in Iraq despite Obama's declaration in 2011 and less U.S. involvement.
We rate this a Compromise.
Miller Center, "Barack Obama: Foreign Affairs," accessed June 8, 2016
Brookings, "Obama the Carpenter," May 2015
Washington Post, "Obama's weak words of war," June 3, 2016
Washington Post, "The long game vs. the long war," June 3, 2016
Washington Post, "Obama's Long Game," June 11, 2016
The Atlantic, "The Obama Doctrine," April 2016
The Atlantic, "Obama's Legacy and the 'Endless' War," Oct. 15, 2015
The Atlantic, "Obama Promised to End America's Wars—Has He?
Huffington Post, "Obama's Foreign Policy Promises Then and Now," Nov. 1, 2015
BBC, "Obama's struggle to realise anti-war rhetoric," Dec. 21, 2015
Politico Magazine, "Who Lost Iraq?" July 2015
Defense One, "The Myth of American Disengagement," May 20, 2016
Interview, Hoover Institution fellow Kori Schake, Aug. 2, 2016
Interview, Anthony Cordesman, CSIS Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Aug. 2, 2016
Interview, George Washington University professor Stephen D. Biddle, Aug. 3, 2016
Last of the "combat" troops leave Iraq; peacekeepers stay behind
The last of American combat troops are leaving Iraq, and journalists on the ground have been documenting the departure of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. "Goodbye Iraq: Last US combat brigade heads home," reported the Associated Press. "Iraq in the rear-view mirror; Final combat brigade exits through a landscape littered with memories," said the Los Angeles Times. And "U.S. mission in Iraq switches from combat to assist," said the report from Reuters.
It's important to note here that the description "combat brigade" is critical. About 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq as a transitional force.
Obama described what those remaining troops will be doing in a speech on Aug. 2, 2010: "As agreed to with the Iraqi government, we will maintain a transitional force until we remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of next year," he said. "And during this period, our forces will have a focused mission -- supporting and training Iraqi forces, partnering with Iraqis in counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilian and military efforts. These are dangerous tasks. There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq"s progress. And the hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq. But make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats."
This is consistent with Obama's promises from the campaign, when he emphasized removing combat troops but keeping other types of troops. Here's what Obama said at debate on Jan. 15, 2008: "We are going to have to protect our embassy. Were going to have to protect our civilians. We"re engaged in humanitarian activity there. We are going to have to have some presence that allows us to strike if Al Qaida is creating bases inside of Iraq. ... but it is not going to be engaged in a war, and it will not be this sort of permanent bases and permanent military occupation that George Bush seems to be intent on."
We should note that the present agreement between Iraq and the United States calls for all troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. The New York Times recently outlined a State Department plan to use private security contractors for diplomatic personnel, and some observers have questioned whether the 2011 deadline for troops leaving is realistic.
Here, though, we're rating Obama's promise to remove combat troops within 16 months of taking office. Technically, he's a few months over the deadline, but he often said "about 16 months" on the campaign trail. In February 2009, shortly after taking office, he set a deadline of August 31, 2010, and he's making that goal. Given the scale and complexity of removing combat troops from Iraq, we think he is substantially meeting the terms of his promise. We rate it Promise Kept.
The Associated Press, "Goodbye Iraq: Last US combat brigade heads home," Aug. 19, 2010
Los Angeles Times, "Iraq in the rearview mirror," Aug. 18, 2010
Reuters, U.S. mission in Iraq switches from combat to assist, Aug. 19, 2010
The White House, Remarks by the President at Disabled Veterans of America Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Aug. 2, 2010
Las Vegas Sun, Democratic primary debate in Nevada, Jan. 15, 2008
The New York Times, Civilians to Take U.S. Lead as Military Leaves Iraq, Aug. 19, 2010
Obama sets date for withdrawal of troops from Iraq
"Today, I have come to speak to you about how the war in Iraq will end," President Obama said in a formal announcement of a new Iraq strategy at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, on Feb. 27.
Under the new plan, Obama said, the United States will remove all combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010.
The plan came about, Obama said, after a comprehensive review of the U.S. strategy in Iraq by a national security team that included the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and commanders on the ground in Iraq. The plan to "transition to full Iraqi responsibility" begins, he said, with the "responsible removal of our combat brigades from Iraq."
"As a candidate for president, I made clear my support for a timeline of 16 months to carry out this drawdown, while pledging to consult closely with our military commanders upon taking office to ensure that we preserve the gains we"ve made and protect our troops," Obama said. "Those consultations are now complete, and I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months.
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
While that will effectively end the combat mission, Obama said, he plans to keep 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel in Iraq through 2011 for the purpose of "training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain nonsectarian; conducting targeted counterterrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq."
There are currently about 142,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, according to the Defense Department. Under terms of an agreement reached with Iraqi leaders last year, the U.S. must remove troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June and, as the Obama plan reinforces, withdraw its forces altogether by the end of 2011.
The timetable for withdrawal was a major campaign issue — the McCain campaign accused Obama of flip-flopping, a claim we said was False — but as Obama noted in his Camp Lejeune speech, he often talked of a 16-month timeline. Obama's current plan goes two months beyond that. There will be some who will say even a day longer than 16 months should constitute a broken promise. We're not ready to make that call because many things can change between now and August 2010, so for now, we're rating it In the Works.
CQ Transcripts, President Obama delivers remarks at Camp Lejeune, Feb. 27, 2009
Bloomberg, "Obama to Say U.S. Combat Mission in Iraq Will End Aug. 31, 2010," by Edwin Chen, Feb 27, 2009