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Sunday show pundits weighed provocations by the Islamic State this week after the public beheading of American journalist James Foley, with some military analysts arguing for a stronger military response from President Barack Obama.
On ABC This Week, retired Marine Gen. John Allen said ending the threat from the Islamic State will require a coalition approach that targets the extreme militant groups across the larger region of Iraq and Syria.
Martha Raddatz, ABC’s chief global affairs correspondent, was wearing her TV pundit hat when she said Allen’s idea for a strategy "makes me think back about what the Obama administration originally wanted."
"They wanted 10,000 troops to remain in Iraq -- not combat troops, but military advisers, special operations forces, to watch the counterterrorism effort," she said. "So perhaps they'd go that way, but it would be a tough one."
The number sounded interesting to PunditFact given Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to pull out of Iraq entirely (which PolitiFact monitors here) and his repeated 2012 campaign proclamations that the war was over.
So we decided to check it out.
Shortly before Obama took office in January 2009, his predecessor, George W. Bush, finalized an important agreement after about a year of negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Called the Status of Forces Agreement, it spelled out the withdrawal of all American troops by the end of 2011.
Obama, who won office in 2008 partly for his pledge to end the war in Iraq, announced his own draw-down plans a month after taking office. "Let me say this as plainly as I can: by Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," he said Feb. 27, 2009.
His speech revealed more details: He would keep between 35,000 to 50,000 military personnel there through the end of 2011 to train and advise Iraqi military and for counterterrorism purposes.
What would happen after Jan. 1, 2012, -- a central point in our fact-check -- was not settled until the fall of 2011. Obama and the Iraqi government had been open to leaving more troops behind to help the country remain stable.
But it didn’t happen.
On Oct. 21, 2011, Obama announced the pullout of the vast majority of American troops in Iraq by Christmas. Staying behind were a couple hundred Marines to train the Iraqi army and provide security for diplomatic personnel.
Essentially, he implemented the phase-out plan laid out by Bush.
Facing a re-election challenge, Obama held the drawdown of all troops as the fulfillment of a campaign pledge. He did not harp on what some, namely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, would see as a failure: failure to reach an agreement regarding how many American troops would remain in the country beyond Jan. 1, 2012.
This was something Obama and his defense advisers had pushed for as they wrangled in negotiations with the al-Maliki-led government in the summer of 2011. The administration feared a virtually complete pullout would allow for big attacks from militant groups.
Here’s what they wanted, and why it failed.
Behind the numbers
Military commanders in Washington and in Baghdad pushed for a residual force between 16,000 and 24,000 to conduct counterrorism work and train Iraqi security forces.
The White House, reports show, was not open to a force that size.
The Obama administration was initially open to leaving up to 10,000 troops in Iraq after the scheduled pullout at the end of 2011, a controversial pitch that would have required approval from Iraq’s divided government to change the 2008 agreement, the Los Angeles Times reported. The troops were to be placed in Baghdad and other "strategic" locations around the country.
It did not stay there. The New York Times detailed how the one-time goal of a 10,000-person force shrank before negotiations failed altogether.
Obama ruled out the 10,000-troop option in an Aug. 13, 2011, conference call, according to the New York Times, and "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-16’s."
What killed the deal
The agreement failed over a demand that American troops be given immunity from prosecution by Iraqis, a very touchy political issue within the Iraqi Parliament. Some experts said Iraqi leaders may not have been willing to take great political risk with their citizens in exchange for a relatively small American force.
But no immunity meant no sizable residual troop presence.
"When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible," al-Maliki said in an October 2011 news conference. "The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started."
Three years later, as the Islamic State advanced in the country and shocked the world, a CNN reporter asked Obama if he regretted the decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq. Obama said, "Keep in mind, that wasn't a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government."
The political overtones have ratcheted up with international headlines about Islamic State, which also is called ISIS. Conservatives blame Obama for pulling out too soon, for leaving Iraq vulnerable, and liberals argue the pullout deadline was prescribed by Bush.
"You pick your poison there," said Lance Janda, chairman of Cameron University’s Department of History and Government. "It’s fair to say no one saw this ISIS stuff coming."
An ABC spokesman said Raddatz was unavailable for comment. The White House did not respond to emails.
Raddatz said the Obama administration originally "wanted 10,000 troops to remain in Iraq -- not combat troops, but military advisers, special operations forces, to watch the counterterrorism effort."
For a period, at least, the Obama administration did envision leaving 10,000 troops in Iraq past the Dec. 31, 2011, pullout of forces. That number went down to about 5,000 before negotiations stalled amid a legal snare over immunity of American forces in Iraqi courts.
Her claim is accurate but needs additional information. We rate her claim Mostly True.
Interview with Lance Janda, Cameron University Department of History and Government chairman, Aug. 24, 2014
Interview with Benjamin Purdy, ABC News spokesman, Aug. 24, 2014
Wall Street Journal, "Obama’s tragic Iraq withdrawal," Oct. 31 2011
New York Times, "Fact-check: A status of forces agreement?" Oct. 22, 2012
Los Angeles Times, "U.S. willing to leave 10,000 troops in Iraq by year’s end, officials say," July 6, 2011
New York Times, "In U.S. exit from Iraq, failed efforts and challenges," Sept. 23, 2012
PolitiFact, "Ad says Obama was reason for Iraq pullout," Nov. 3, 2011
New York Times, "Relief from U.S. exit from Iraq fades as reality overtakes hope," June 26, 2014
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