President Barack Obama had “leverage” to maintain a residual U.S. military force in Iraq, but decided against it, a mistake that allowed jihadists to breed in the country, argues Leon Panetta in his new book.
Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director and then Secretary of Defense, made those revelations in his new book Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, which he co-authored with Jim Newton and is set to be published on October 7.
Time published an excerpt from the new book, where Panetta argues that maintaining a residual American force in Iraq beyond 2011 could have reined in sectarian violence and prevented the rise of the Islamic State, the focus of the current U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to keep troops lingering in Iraq, wrote Panetta. “But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated.”
Then-Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flourno argued the Pentagon’s case in favor of a residual force and “those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests,” Panetta explained.
“We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence,” he added. “My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.”
“To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country,” also wrote the Pentagon chief.