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Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, US Army Commander for Southern Iraq, declared that the security situation in Southern Iraq is not fragile. This contradicts recent statements from other military leaders like CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Commander in Iraq. Gareth Porter reports on his conversations with other commanders on the ground in Iraq who support Oates’ statement. Part 2 of this interview will be published on Saturday, February 21st.

Story Transcript

Dissension in the US ranks?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Is there an argument brewing in top US military leadership in Iraq about whether the 16-month withdrawal plan of President Obama is realistic? And is this perhaps a reflection of an even bigger debate—whether to get out of Iraq at all? I’m joined now by Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist, to talk about this. Hi, Gareth. So let’s start with the argument about 16 months versus 23 months. Who’s saying what? And what is this about?

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: Well, of course, President Obama, when he was a candidate, was pledging that he would withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. That generated a good deal of resistance within the command both in Baghdad, US command in Baghdad, and General Petraeus at CENTCOM in Tampa, Florida, who began to let it be known that they felt that was too risky and that they favored a longer plan for withdrawal [inaudible]

JAY: Too risky? Why? What’s the risk?

PORTER: Well, they were never that clear about this, but you get the impression that what they’re suggesting is that if we get out too fast, everything will collapse, that the ceasefires will cease to exist, and you’ll have Shias fighting Sunnis. You might have, supposedly, you know, the Sadrists in the south, the Shiite militiamen, rising up again, and opposing the government, and so on and so forth.

JAY: So what makes us think this isn’t so?

PORTER: Well, for a variety of reasons. First of all, let me just point out that when—in my story just published on Huffington Post and Inter Press Service today, the headline really is that one of the commanders in Iraq, General Oates, who commands the entire eight-province southern region, which is a dominant Shia region of Iraq, is now saying he briefed reporters last week, and he said, contrary to what Petraeus and Odierno have been saying, that the security gains in that part of Iraq are permanent—they are not fragile, as he put it. And he made a series of statements indicating that, for example, you know, he’s now transferred his combat troops from the combat mission to economic development or training Iraqi troops, even though there’s some grumbling among the troops themselves. He basically—he is known, according to a military source who’s now in Iraq, a military officer who serves under Odierno, he told me that Oates has been known as somebody who has favored a more rapid withdrawal than Odierno and Petraeus have been arguing for for some time. And then there are others in the command. I talked with a field commander today in Iraq who told me that there is no real difference between the 16- and 23-months plans in terms of risk.

JAY: Now, we’re talking a difference of seven months here.

PORTER: We’re talking about seven months. And the overriding fact, as this officer pointed out to me, is that, you know, the United States doesn’t have any real leverage over either the Sunnis or the Shiites in terms of a decision to resume war. They’re going to resume war when it suits them, regardless of whether the US troops are there or not. But they’re probably going to wait until the US troop withdrawal does draw down. But they are going to do it if they have their own reasons for doing it. The US simply does not have the leverage to say to one side or the other, “You’re not going to do that.”

JAY: Just to be clear, too, the fight that might break out that people are talking about is the fight amongst different sections of the elite of different ethnic regions fighting over oil revenues. So whether or not they’re going to—. I mean, one could imagine a scenario that the current balance of forces would be changed by an American withdrawal. For example, certainly Maliki’s power, a lot of it, Maliki’s power, is based on US troops in Iraq. That would change significantly his positioning in Iraq if he didn’t have US troops to back him up.

PORTER: Well, first of all, you point out the importance of oil revenues and control, essentially, over the oil wells themselves. These are assets which are primarily an issue that could cause war between the Kurds and the Arabs, both Sunni and Shia. So that’s yet another possible conflict in the future which US troops, frankly, are not going to be able to prevent. I mean, that is probably going to happen. I mean, that’s just a historical fact that you can probably bet money on, that there will be fighting in the future over those oil wells, because the Kurds desperately want them, but the Sunnis and Shiites, the Arabs in the rest of Iraq, the non-Kurdish part of Iraq, they want them too. And US influence on both sides is simply not going to be great enough to prevent [inaudible]

JAY: Let’s dig into what is this debate. If seven months cannot be that significant, one way or the other, when you’re talking such major forces at play. So is this actually really debate about postponing in order to keep postponing? In other words, is this really a debate about getting out at all?

PORTER: I think that is exactly the way it is. In fact, the 23-month plan, which supposedly is what Odierno and Petraeus favor, you know, they have now submitted three plans to the White House: the 16-month plan, 19-month plan, and the 23-month plan, all supposedly having an assessment of the risks associated with each one of them. Well, you know, it’s very difficult for me to believe that there’s any credible analysis that goes into that risk assessment of supposedly differentiating between the [inaudible]

JAY: Well, is the real issue really about the risk being fighting amongst different segments of Iraqi society? Or is it really about that a withdrawal of the US forces may give rise to new political forces coming into dominance in Iraq that aren’t so friendly with the United States?

PORTER: Well, I think it is the latter, and, of course, you know, the reality is that unless the United States is going to stay there permanently, that’s a problem we’re going to have to face, that’s a reality which we will have to face. And I think, you know, the officer that I spoke with this week, on the basis of which I wrote this story, was making precisely that story. I mean, the officers really understand that, that the reality is that we cannot prevent [inaudible]

JAY: You either get out or you stay.

PORTER: You get out or you stay. So you’re right: the 23-month plan, which Odierno and Petraeus are now backing, is really a kind of a front.

JAY: Now, Odierno’s been quoted as talking about this as being a much longer commitment.

PORTER: Yes. The point about Odierno is that he gave an interview to Thom Ricks, the Washington Post correspondent who has now published a book, The Gamble, and appeared on talk shows everywhere talking about how the United States must stay, basically, forever in Iraq. A large part of the reason why he’s saying that is because Odierno has been saying that to him, and his last interview with Odierno was last November, just before the election, in which Odierno said, “Look, we’re going to need to stay here well beyond 2011.” And when he was asked how many troops you’d like to have past the 2011 date, he said, “I would like to have a force of thirty or forty thousand troops in 2014 or 2015.”

JAY: Which is not too different than what Obama said when Petraeus and Crocker came to Congress and were testifying and Obama was asking questions. He actually used those numbers. He said, “Could we more or less hold the status quo with about thirty or forty thousand troops?”

PORTER: Right. I mean, the difference, of course, is that that was long before the pullout agreement, the withdrawal agreement, was signed by the United States in November—

JAY: Agreement with Iraq.

PORTER: —with Iraq in November of 2008. That, of course, changes everything. And the Obama administration is presumably committed to carrying out that agreement. It is in the interests of Barack Obama to carry out that agreement, because he believes strategically that’s the interest of the United States, to move its troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and to pull back the rest of his troops so that he can begin to heal what is recognized very broadly and is recognized by the president himself as a broken Army and Marine corps.

JAY: How much at odds is Obama with his military leadership?

PORTER: I think it’s a fundamental difference. I mean, I’m not guaranteeing that he will carry out the agreement as it is has been signed by the United States.

JAY: Now we’re talking about the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.

PORTER: The Status of Forces Agreement, which is—.

JAY: Which means get out by 2011.

PORTER: It was the Status of Forces Agreement. Now it’s called the Withdrawal Agreement by the Iraqis. I think he has very strong reasons to do that. As I’ve said, it’s because he really believes strategically that the United States should get out. Secondly, it was his campaign pledge. He has a reason for wanting to show that he has carried out what he promised. And, thirdly,—and I think this is a point that may be overlooked—he has an interest in showing that he can stand up to the military, that he’s not going to just roll over and do whatever they say.

JAY: If they do settle on a 20-month date and not a 16-month date, is this a sign of the beginnings of a giving in to this other position?

PORTER: Well, I think it would represent a concession to the military.

JAY: By Obama.

PORTER: By Obama. And if he does not see the rationality of it, which I suspect he won’t, then I think it would be recognized as a sign of weakness.

JAY: And when does he have to make this decision?

PORTER: Well, he doesn’t have to make it. There’s no deadline for him. But I think he does feel the need to get this ball rolling. So I think he’s going to make it very early in March.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

PORTER: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.