A top military commander Wednesday defended President Barack Obama against Republican charges that his pullout from Iraq gave rise to the Islamic State.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing Army chief of staff, said the Iraq exit plan was finalized in 2008 under President George W. Bush and that Iraq’s subsequent refusal to grant U.S. troops legal immunity would have made it impossible to leave a contingent behind after the last American combat troops departed in late 2011.
“I remind everybody that us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration,” Odierno said at a Pentagon briefing. “And that was always the plan. We had promised that we would respect their sovereignty, and so I think based on that, that was always our plan.”
A number of GOP presidential candidates, most recently President Bush’s brother Jeb, have blamed the success of the Islamic State on the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.
Odierno also defended Bush, declining to call the March 2003 invasion of Iraq a mistake.
“We don’t know where we would be right now if Saddam Hussein was still in power,” Odierno said. “He was moving towards terrorism, and I believe if he continued problems, you don’t know what he might have done in terms of being part of the problem with terrorism.”
Odierno added: “I talked to all the Iraqi generals. They will tell you, there were nuclear weapons. They believed there were.”
Odierno, who is being succeeded by Gen. Mark Milley as the Army’s top staff person, said the Islamic State has exploited fissures created by the inability of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis to settle their differences and form a united government that provides equally for all three ethnic and religious groups.
One year after the United States began bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq, Odierno acknowledged that the group still can muster between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters. But he said the campaign has succeeded in killing many top Islamic State leaders, forcing the group to replace them with less able commanders.
“That makes a difference because now you’ve got second, third, fourth stringers coming in,” he said.
Odierno said the accelerated violence over the last year has worsened divisions among Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, and he said both countries could end up effectively partitioned among those two groups and Kurds.
In military terms, Odierno said, the United States could defeat the Islamic State, but he said any victory would prove temporary without the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites settling their difference.
“The U.S. cannot solve this problem for the region,” he said. “I’ve said before, we could go in with a certain amount of American forces, we could probably defeat ISIL. The problem would be, will we be right back where we are six months later?” ISIL is the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
Odierno said he does not believe the Islamic State poses a direct threat to the United States, but that the radical organization poses a peril to the Middle East and the significant American interests there.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose