Mission Accomplished? Questions Remain For White House On Iraq, Afghanistan

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President Obama’s earliest supporters, many of whom were first attracted to him because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, spent Friday cheering the news that all U.S. troops would be out of the country by the end of the year.

Still, for core Democratic voters and all war-weary Americans, serious questions remain about how the decision was made, the extent and propriety of the United States’ continued commitment and what it means for the mission in Afghanistan.

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, held a conference call Friday afternoon to try to answer some of those lingering questions.

Q: How much of the decision to remove all U.S. forces was more due to the fact that the Iraqis were not willing to grant immunity to the remaining troops?

Rhodes: “Look, this is entirely about what the President feels is in the best interest of the U.S. going forward…and we’ve always said at the very beginning of this administration as it related to the questions about 2011 and beyond, that, no. 1 we had a commitment to remove all of our troops, and we believe that that’s in the interest of the U.S….the President set a goal and that goal was a sovereign and stable and self-reliant Iraq.

The goal was not to have some kind of U.S. presence in Iraq post-2011, and frankly, we believe that the Iraqis have demonstrated that they can provide for their security, they can keep the levels of violence at the greatly diminished levels that they’re at today…So therefore, we can achieve that goal and maintain our partnership with Iraq without having troops based in the country.

The second part of what we have said is we would be open to any requests by the Iraqis -about a U.S. relationship post-2011 ad there were a lot of discussions about what that would entail.”

“In the end, Iraqis also decide that it was in their best interest to have a relationships that didn’t involved U.S. troops based in the country…which is fully in line in what we believe is in our interests.

So the key takeaway from the [negotiations] between the President and the Prime Minister [Maliki] today…We both agree believe it’s in the best interest of the U.S. and Iraq…to remove all U.S. troops and have a normal relationship…that involves the type of military-to-military cooperation we have with other countries where we don’t have U.S. bases…robust cooperation and some training and equipment.

I think it would be a mistake to suggest that we saw it as a U.S. goal to maintain troops in Iraq after 2011. We never articulated that as a goal–what we’ve articulated as a goal as to fulfill the agreement to remove all of our troops and have a desire to have a partnership with Iraq going forward.

We very much feel confident and quite pleased that the outcome of our discussion with the Iraqis is a partnership that ends the war and removes all us troops and has a cooperative relationship going forward, but one that doesn’t have to involve a U.S. base in the country.”

Q: What will our remaining State Department, civilian presence in Iraq look like? What kind of assistance will we be providing?

Rhodes: “One of the key takeaways here is the desire for the Iraqi people to move into a new phase where they have a normal relationship with the United States.

…There’s a lot of interest [on the part of the Iraqis] in helping them develop strong democratic institutions that are able to deliver for the Iraqi people.

…The Iraqi people have voiced concerns in recent years about things such as the provision of electricity so we have had experts that are able to help facilitate improvements in that in this regard” as well as develop deeper ties in education exchanges and U.S. business investment.

We’ll have a very strong diplomatic presence in Iraq going forward – a very large embassy presence and two consulate…[their work] will cover the landscape from, again, the type of capacity-building in the government and continued support in areas like agriculture, police development.”

Q: There are estimates that we’re going to need 5,000 to 7,000 private security contractors there to protect the mission. Is that accurate?

Rhodes: “The number we anticipate is 4,500 or so private security contractors helping to secure our diplomatic personnel…that is much lower than has been the case previously in Iraq.

We’re confident the State Department and the U.S. government as a whole has learned at lot of lessons over the course of the last eight or nine years. In the planning that’s been done for the end of the war and the buildup of our civilian presence, I think the State department has spent a lot of time making sure it has built out its own ability to manage the contracting presence.”

Q: Now that we are ending our military presence in Iraq, what’s happening in Afghanistan and what exactly is our mission there?

For many years now, Rhodes said, the President has made a core case for our national security: that the U.S. needed to wind down the war in Iraq and needed to focus on disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda in a strategic, targeted way rather than a largescale military effort.

With the death of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, the U.S. has made significant progress, but disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda and making sure they do not have safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the main goal of the operation in Afghanistan, he continued.

Rhodes: “We believe we’re making very good progress to that core goal as we reduce our military presence in Afghanistan steadily over time.”

…What’s striking is…at the same time you have the last 40,000 or so U.S. troops moving out of Iraq, you have the first 10,000 moving out of Afghanistan… You’re seeing that delta of U.S. troops serving in harms way in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning to drop precipitously down to 90,000 by the end of the year.

In Afghanistan, after the first 10,000, we will be continuing to recover the rest of the surge by the end of next summer, which would take the number roughly to 68,000…so I think we’re on a steady trajectory of reducing our military footprint overseas and bringing our troops home.

The President at every juncture has kept his commitment about reductions in U.S. forces — whether it was a promise to pull us forces out of Iraqi cities in the Spring of 2009, to get down to 50,000 troops in August of 2010, which was a reduction of 100,000 from when we took office, and now to remove all troops in Iraq by the end of this year.”

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