As U.S. forces return to Iraq to counter the surging al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense and CIA chief recalls the White House debates that led to America’s departure from the country. His new book, with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, from which this article is adapted, will be published on Oct. 7.
Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me—and many others—that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.
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Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.
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