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McDonough: U.S. Military Brass ‘Absolutely’ OK With Iraq Withdrawal by 2012

October 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama announced Friday that all but a few dozen American troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year as planned, and that the "long war" will come to an end. Margaret Warner discusses the withdrawal logistics and the politics of the president's announcement with Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iraq war is almost over.

That announcement came from the commander in chief almost nine years after the U.S. invasion. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama pledged to end the conflict. Up until this week, American and Iraqi officials were negotiating ways for some troops to remain after the Dec. 31 deadline. But the two countries failed to reach agreement on legal immunity for U.S. forces who stayed on to train Iraqis.

President Obama spoke to reporters after a private video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.

Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home. The last American soldier 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 I told Prime Minister Maliki, we will continue discussions on how we might help Iraq train and equip its forces, again, just as we offer training and assistance to countries around the world. After all, there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq and the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant.

Here at home, the coming months will be another season of homecomings. Across America, our service men and women will be reunited with their families. Today, I can say that our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays.

The tide of war is receding. The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and the chief major victories against its leadership, including Osama bin Laden.

Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’d begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership.

And as we welcome home our newest veterans, we’ll never stop working to give them and their families the care, the benefits and the opportunities that they have earned.

This includes enlisting our veterans in the greatest challenge that we now face as a nation, creating opportunity and jobs in this country, because after a decade of war the nation that we need to build and the nation that we will build is our own, an America that sees its economic strength restored just as we’ve restored our leadership around the globe.

Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nearly 4,500 U.S. service men and women have been killed in the Iraq war. Some 40,000 troops are there now, and about 160 military personnel will remain behind to train Iraqis and carry out other duties.

For more on today’s announcement, Margaret Warner spoke a short time ago to Denis McDonough, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

MARGARET WARNER: Denis McDonough, thank you for joining us.

The U.S. has been in these talks with the Iraqis about leaving 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops there. How did that come apart?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, U.S. deputy national security adviser: Well, let me just take a step pack, Margaret, and say that we have obviously been in talks with the Iraqis over the course of many months, in fact, a couple years now, about the kind of relationship we want to have at the end of this security agreement.

The security agreement was negotiated and signed in 2008 by President Bush with Prime Minister Maliki. Under that agreement, we were always scheduled to get to zero U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq at the end of this calendar year.

So we made a determination that we would — the president would live up to that agreement, but always keeping open the option in the event that the Iraqis asked for an additional presence after that time that we would keep them there, obviously with the appropriate protections. But we also wanted to make sure that we had a goal not of maintaining people on the ground, but, rather, a goal of protecting our interests and the kind of relationship that we want going forward.

So this isn’t a question of what we were able to get or not able to get from the Iraqis, but, rather, this is a question of what we decided, what the president decided, and what the prime minister decided was in our interests for the relationship going forward. We have the kind of relationship now that’s multifaceted, allowing security and training, but also allowing us to get back to the normal relationship that we have with governments all around the world.

So I just want to not leave the impression that somehow this is a question of not having gotten immunities and, therefore, we made a different — made a course change.

In fact, the decision here was, what is the kind of relationship we want to have going forward? How would we be able to get back to a normal relationship with Iraq, like that we have with other countries around the world? And that’s why the president made the decision he made today, not because of something the Iraqis did or didn’t do.

MARGARET WARNER: Are U.S. military commanders on board with this?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, we have been working — I actually happened to have just been in Baghdad over the weekend. We obviously are working very closely with our commander on the ground, with our ambassador. And I think they feel very good about something that we should all, frankly, feel quite good about, namely, the partnering, the training, and the operations that our troops have carried out jointly with Iraqi security forces over the course of these last several years.

That effort has gotten the Iraqis into a position where they can take over for themselves. Every assessment we have done has said that, on the threats against which they need to be most ready soonest, they are ready to go. The fact is, they have been carrying out internal security operations now over the course of a couple of years and doing it quite well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, will U.S. special forces remain for counterterrorism operations?


MARGARET WARNER: So, there really will be absolutely no troops, except this handful, this 150?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: What we will maintain is a standard Marine security detachment associated with the embassy. We have Marines at our embassies all around the world, very small number, to provide some initial security there for our people.

There will be about 160 military personnel associated with what’s called the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq. This is a training operation that will provide the Iraqis the kind of training that they will need on new weapons systems that they will be purchasing from us, to include, for example, the F-16 fighter jets that they bought from us last month.

So we will have a very small presence there, as we do at embassies around the world. Then we will provide for periodic exercises in — naval exercises, air force exercises, and there are other things. But we will negotiate those with the Iraqis and do them, frankly, the same way we do them with other allies around the world, with the Egyptians, with the Jordanians, with the Colombians and others.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the — your own commanders in field have said that the — a lot of these recent spectacular rocket and bomb attacks are actually the work of Iranian-backed Shiite militias who wanted the U.S. to leave by the deadline.

Is there a danger here that Iran can see this as some sort of victory, this decision?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Boy, you know, there’s all sorts of Pyrrhic victories, I guess, for the Iranians.

But when you take a — when you consider the fact that the Iranians are now more isolated than they ever have been, they’re seeing their economy weaker, notwithstanding the fact that we’re seeing over the course of the last year record high oil prices, and obviously, unable even to live up to its basic responsibilities in the international community, be that human rights, be that nuclear responsibilities, or, as we learned last week, Margaret, their inability even to live up to their basic requirement to protect diplomats.

I think that the Iranians are in a situation where they’re exceedingly weaker, where they’re isolated. And so I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about exactly how they will exploit the situation. The Iraqis don’t want to be under the thumb of the Iranians any more than many, frankly, of the Iranian people want to be under the thumb of that regime.

But, at the end of the day, we think that the Iraqis are ready to stand up on their own here, and we think it’s a good opportunity for them to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: One final question, actually, about Libya. How concerned are you, is the U.S. administration about how Gadhafi was killed, and do you think there should be some sort of investigation — international investigation?

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Well, we’re still trying to catch up with the facts from on the ground there. It’s quite hazy in terms of what exactly happened.

So we’re obviously very concerned about the situation in Libya. That’s why we took the steps we took from day one as it related to the president’s courageous and bold, frankly, decision to lead the international community in the effort that we did earlier this spring.

As it relates to precisely what happened yesterday, we’re still getting some of the details. We’re waiting to hear additional details from NATO. But I’m not going to get ahead of those facts right now and announce any particular decisions from the administration, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, thanks so much.