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Did Obama Really “Cut and Run” and “Abandon” Iraq to ISIS?

In June of 2014 the Sunni-dominated hybrid terrorist-army known as ISIS surged out of the deserts of western Iraq in a fleet of heavily armed pickup trucks and surprised the world by shattering a much larger Iraqi Army and conquering Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. This extraordinary attack rounded out their conquests in western Iraq and eastern Syria and left them in charge of an area larger than Britain that stretched from the Mediterranean to within twenty-five miles of Baghdad and was home to twelve million people. When combined with the televised beheadings of Americans, destruction of millennia old monuments, mass raping of pagan Yazidi women, brutal enforcement of Medieval sharia law in lands once ruled by Baathist secularists, and calls for lone wolf jihadi terrorism across the globe, this event created something akin to “ISIS phobia” among millions of Americans. Overnight 84 percent of Americans came to see ISIS as a “critical threat to America.” i

It was not surprising that politicians lost no time in politicizing this catastrophic event, although it showed true brass when one of the prime architects of the initial chaos created by the American overthrow of the Baathist regime in 2003, former Vice President Dick Cheney, came out in Fox News and the Wall Street Journal to declare:

“When Mr. Obama and his team came into office in 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq had been largely defeated, thanks primarily to the heroic efforts of U.S. armed forces during the surge. Mr. Obama had only to negotiate an agreement to leave behind some residual American forces, training and intelligence capabilities to help secure the peace. Instead, he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

Right wing pundit Pam Geller was to similarly opine of Obama:

“Isn’t this the same guy who did a victory dance after he inherited a stable Iraq (post-surge)? Isn’t this the same guy who refused to sign a status of forces agreement to keep Iraq stable? Isn’t this the same guy who cut and run and left our newly-built ally in the lurch?”

But is there any truth to rightwing claims that Obama “cut and ran” and “abandoned” Iraq? As in most things related to politics, an analysis of the actual events surrounding the 2011 withdrawal of US troops from Iraq shows that in this case the truth is more prosaic than the hyped rhetoric and points to a complex history that few Americans understand.

The Obama Administration’s Failure to sign a 2011 Status of Forces Agreement

The starting point to understanding the debate over who “lost Iraq,” is the 2007 troop surge of 28,000 reinforcements (five brigades) led by General David Petraeus. This surge brought the number of US troops in Iraq up to 168,000 and made up for the fact that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had sent in too small a force to occupy this California-sized country and wage a full blown counter-insurgency and prevent a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Combined with the rise of the so-called Anbar Awakening (i.e. a revolt by Sunni tribesmen in the western desert province of Anbar against Sunni ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’s’ brutality), the surge was able to defeat the Sunni jihadi insurgency in a year.

It had been a close thing and the US almost lost the war in Iraq. But the turning point came when 103,000 Sunni tribesmen in Iraq’s largest province (many of whom had previously been fighting a bloody insurgency against the American “infidel occupiers” and the Shiite “apostate” government that we had put in place in Baghdad) spontaneously turned on their Al Qaeda in Iraq allies in 2007. These Anbar Awakening Sunni militias then worked with the Americans to take back the exurban “belts” around Baghdad that had been occupied by Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as the towns to the west and north of Baghdad (the so-called Sunni Triangle).

By 2008 the surge had ended and the war appeared to have stabilized. US troops gradually began to return to their bases and Iraq Army forces (mainly Shiites) took their places. By this time the American public was sick of the war and even Republicans began calling for “nation building at home, instead of in the deserts of the Middle East.” Polls at the time showed that a majority of Americans believed they had been “intentionally misled” into going to war by the Bush administration.ii Gallup polls also showed that 59 percent of Americans wanted US troops out of Iraq and 60 percent called the war a mistake.iii In addition, 51 percent of Americans had come to see “no link between the war in Iraq and the broader anti-terror effort.”iv And it was not just average Americans who had turned against Rumsfeld’s war, General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, came out and called it “the greatest strategic disaster in American history.”v Bush’s numbers in the polls would plummet too and he would become ranked as the most unpopular president in the history of polling with just a 28 percent approval rating (i.e. his numbers were even lower than Nixon’s after Watergate).vi

Fully aware of how unpopular the war had become, President Bush decided to sign an agreement with the Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al Maliki, to withdraw US troops by the end of 2011. On December 14, 2008 Bush flew to the Green Zone government complex in central Baghdad and famously signed a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Maliki that would lead to the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq in December 2011, thus ending the immensely unpopular war. This bilateral agreement was officially known as the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq.” The signing ceremony elicited headlines around the globe when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush, whom he called a “dog.”

In the ensuing three years, the US troops remaining in Iraq largely focused on training the Iraqi Army to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents who were down, but not totally beaten. This culminated the eight year effort that cost $25 billion and involved thousands of US trainers who taught the Iraqi Army force of approximately a million troops how to do everything from fly Apache attack helicopters to wage counter-insurgency. As the Americans prepared to depart there were hopes that this force, which had been intentionally filled with Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to reflect the multi-ethnic nature of Iraq would work with the 103,000 Anbar Awakening Sunni tribesmen to safeguard Iraq after the US departed. The Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki promised the new American president he would work closely with the Sunnis who had been thrown out of power by the American governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, in 2003 to heal the wounds of their disenfranchisement.

But for all the seeming unity of purpose between the Americans and the Iraqis, the Pentagon wanted to retain a small residual force of some sort in Iraq beyond the planned withdrawal date of December 31, 2011. While the 2008 Bush-Maliki SOFA had called for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, there was an informal agreement that some troops would be left behind. Numbers from 3,000 to 20,000 residual troops were bandied around at the time and new SOFA negotiations were begun in October 2011 as the US withdrawal deadline approached. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen wanted to leave 16,000 troops in Iraq, but the Obama administration convinced them to lower the number to 10,000.vii This number was later whittled down by Obama to about 5,000 troops and a half dozen F-16s.viii

Obama therefore agreed that some US troops needed to be left behind to train and advise Iraqi forces, but Prime Minister Maliki told the American president that he needed to “line up political allies” in parliament to gain support for such a potentially unpopular move.ix The Iraqi president was under pressure from many Shiite factions to complete the total withdrawal of all US forces and the return to full sovereignty for Iraq. As the December 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline approached, both sides assumed an agreement would be made to leave a residual US training force in Iraq.

It was at this time that the American side brought up the thorny issue of immunity for US residual troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Should US residual troops break Iraqi laws, the US did not want to have them tried in an Iraqi court. But with the memory of the Haditha massacre of Iraqi civilians by US Marines, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal involving the US torture of Iraqi prisoners and the Black Water contractors’ shooting of Iraqi civilians in downtown Baghdad still fresh in their minds, the Iraqi side balked at this request. The notion of having gun-totting American soldiers acting with impunity in post-US occupation Iraq was seen by the Iraqis as an unacceptable infringement on their sovereignty. The Maliki side felt it was being pressed too hard on this issue and refused to allow US residual troops to be given immunity. Maliki would later say at an October 2011 conference "When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible."x

Without this immunity, the Americans decided they could not continue to base US troops in Iraq. The issue of legal protection for US troops in post 2011 Iraq was essentially a deal breaker. Thus there was no new SOFA and the US troops were brought home, except for a contingent of several hundred troops and contractors guarding the massive US embassy in Baghdad (the largest in the world). Obama would later blame the collapse of the talks for a new SOFA on Maliki and the Iraqi government.xi

Regardless of who was to blame, it is doubtful that, had the Obama administration been able to work out a new SOFA deal with Maliki to keep 3,000 to 5,000 US trainers in Iraq, that this small force of advisers could have militarily prevented the rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the sprawling Sunni lands of Iraq in 2014 (recall that it took 168,000 US troops to defeat ISIS’s earlier manifestation, Al Qaeda in Iraq, during the 2007 surge). The US trainers-advisors would not have had a mandate to return to wage full-scale battles/counter-insurgency in the vast deserts of Anbar province, much less Syria. Their presence might have, however, moderated the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al Maliki’s anti-Sunni, sectarian tendencies which emerged right after the US troops departed (within twenty four hours of the US departure he tried arresting his Sunni vice president and later arrested several high ranking Sunni politicians and many Anbar Awakening Sunni tribesmen).

With no US troops remaining in the country, America’s influence and leverage over Prime Minister Maliki was tremendously reduced and he quickly gave into his anti-Sunni, authoritarian impulses. Maliki was to launch a campaign of arrests of Sunnis that was to incite rebellions among this sectarian group. Many of these Sunni rebels would subsequently go on to join ISIS, which positioned itself as the voice of repressed Sunnis vis a vis the Shiite government of Maliki which had been put in place at the expense of the Sunnis by the Bush administration. In this respect, Obama can be faulted for not forcing this issue of leaving residual American troops in Iraq to possibly be used as leverage against Maliki’s subsequent anti-Sunni policies. But it must be stated that many in the Shiite dominated Iraqi government did not want a continued US presence and worked hard to prevent it.

Either way, Obama was glad to put the unpopular war behind him and thus fulfill his campaign promise to the American people, while Maliki could claim to having restored full Iraqi sovereignty. For an Iraqi leader who was closely aligned to the Shiite Iranians who hoped to extend their influence in post-US Iraq, this was a victory. For his part, Obama somewhat optimistically declared that the “tides of war are receding” and "the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end.”

As we now know the war did not end when the last of the remaining 39,000 US troops withdrew from Iraq into Kuwait in mid-December 2011 in a somber ceremony that recalled the death of almost 4,500 Americans and over 200,000 Iraqis in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Far from ending the conflict and creating an inclusive, multi-ethnic state, Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies directly led to the rise of ISIS. He, along with Paul Bremer, is the man most responsible for creating ISIS.

But Obama played a lesser role as well. There can be little doubt that Obama was overly eager to wash his hands of the unpopular war in Iraq and disengaged his administration politically and militarily from this country after 2011. The lack of American leverage and influence in post-2011 Iraq certainly gave Maliki a free reign to engage in blatant anti-Sunni policies. Maliki’s policies directly fed into ISIS’s narrative that it was the sole defender of the Sunnis who had been disenfranchised by both the initial Bush invasion and Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies. Today, as a result of all these missteps (i.e. Paul Bremer’s disenfranchisement of the Sunnis in 2003, Maliki’s further repression of them after 2011, and Obama’s failure to force the issue of US troops remaining in Iraq which might have moderated Maliki’s actions), many Sunnis from Aleppo to Mosul to Fallujah see ISIS as their natural protector against a Shiite regime put in place by the Americans who overthrew over 500 years of Sunni dominance in Iraq.


i “ISIS Viewed as Threat to the United States, Poll.” Forbes. February 16, 2015. “Poll. Two Thirds of Americans Fear ISIS Threat.” Newsmax. August 28, 2014.

ii Ibid. page 191.

iii Ibid. page 199.

iv “Polls Show Shift in Opinion on War Effort.” New York Times. August 23, 2006.

v Ibid. page 190.

vi Terry Anderson. Bush’s Wars. Oxford; Oxford University Press. 2011. Page 212.

vii “In US Exit from Iraq Failed Efforts and Challenges.” New York Times. September 22, 2012.

viii Ibid.

ix “Despite Difficult Talks, U.S. and Iraq Had Expected Some American Troops to Stay.” New York Times. October 21, 2011.

x “In US Exit from Iraq Failed Efforts and Challenges.” New York Times. September 22, 2012.

xi Ibid.