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Context of 'January 22, 2009: US Military Officials Leery of 16-Month Iraq Withdrawal'

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US defense officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, say they are not entirely supportive of President Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq within 16 months. Gates is the only Obama administration holdover from the former Bush administration. Instead of getting behind Obama’s 16-month withdrawal, which was a central promise of Obama’s campaign, defense officials say they intend to present Obama with a “full range of options.” Asked about Obama’s meeting with him and senior US military commanders to discuss withdrawal, Gates says the 16-month timetable is just “the beginning of a process of evaluating various options.” The White House has said that the plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq in 16 months are firm. “Let me just say, I think our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options,” Gates notes. “And he will make the decision.” Iraq is still a nation in transition, says Admiral Michael Mullen, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and this year’s series of elections in Iraq provides reason for both hope and apprehension. “There’s growing confidence, but it’s not in leaps and bounds,” Mullen says. General Ray Odierno, the senior US commander in Iraq, says, “How the provincial elections play out will, I think, be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year.” Mullen is in favor of a “responsible drawdown,” but is not sure exactly how it should progress. Outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker joins Gates, Mullen, and Odierno in warning of what he calls a “precipitous” withdrawal (see January 22, 2009). “Al-Qaeda is incredibly tenacious,” Crocker says. “As long as they hang on they are looking for the opportunity to regenerate.” Obama intends to withdraw some forces from Iraq for duty in Afghanistan, which he views as the US’s central front in battling terrorism. There are currently 143,000 US troops in Iraq, and only 34,000 in Afghanistan. The US commander in Afghanistan wants another 30,000 troops; the Pentagon says those will be provided over the next 12 to 18 months. Gates agrees with Obama’s intention to refocus US military efforts on Afghanistan: “The president has been quite clear that the mission is to responsibly draw down and end our active combat role, the role that we have been playing over the last number of years. He wants to put more emphasis on Afghanistan and deal with the problems in Afghanistan there and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan.” [Agence France-Presse, 1/22/2009]

Entity Tags: Raymond Odierno, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), Michael Mullen, Obama administration, Robert M. Gates, Ryan C. Crocker

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

Many top US military commanders in the Middle East are distressed at Senate Republicans’ efforts to block Christopher Hill’s attempt to become the next US ambassador to Iraq. Hill, who was largely successful in crafting a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with North Korea (see Spring and Summer 2005 and February 8, 2007 and After), is being blocked by the efforts of Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Republican Opprobrium - Brownback calls Hill’s past dealings with Congress over North Korea “evasive and unprofessional”; McCain and Graham have said that Hill has a “controversial legacy” on North Korea, and added: “The next ambassador should have experience in the Middle East and in working closely with the US military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. Mr. Hill has neither.”
Military Wants Hill Confirmed - But CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, top Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want Hill in the slot as soon as possible. Odierno says he has served as de facto ambassador since the previous ambassador, Ryan Crocker, left the position on February 13. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says: “Generals Odierno and Petraeus have come out very publicly and very forcefully in support of Ambassador Hill’s nomination. I know they support it. They know him from previous assignments, they like him, they believe he is well suited to the job, and are anxiously awaiting his confirmation because they do need help, frankly.… Everybody involved with Iraq wants to find a way to replicate that arrangement,” referring to the effective interaction between Generals Odierno and Petraeus and former Ambassador Crocker. “So that you have an even yoke that on the civilian/diplomatic side and on the military side which share the burden and are working together to get the job done. It’s what’s in the best interest of the Iraqi people and the American people. With regards to [Senate] members who have issue with him, I would say this. We appreciate their steadfast support of the Iraq mission. But you can’t be bullish in support of that mission and not send an ambassador in a timely fashion.”
Difficult, Myriad Tasks in New Position - Hill faces a difficult job: political stabilization and economic development have taken precedence over military missions in Iraq; tensions between Arabs and Kurds are heightening; sectarian groups are struggling for political dominance; and national elections are approaching. A Washington official says that keeping a lid on such political tensions is “crucial to consolidating the security gains from the surge, yet the advocates of the surge want to slow down the process of getting an ambassador to Iraq.” Retired General William Nash, who commanded US troops in Bosnia, says: “I would not at all be surprised if military commanders in Iraq are frustrated that they don’t have a new ambassador in position. The issues are far more political and economic than they are military and US efforts need to move forward on those fronts. That’s particularly critical in the execution of the withdrawal plan.”
Political Retribution? - Asked why McCain, Brownback, and Graham are blocking Hill’s appointment, Nash says the three are “being difficult to be difficult. I have known Chris Hill for 14 years. He is a wonderful diplomat and exactly the kind of guy we need in Iraq.” Crocker has spoken out in favor of Hill, as has Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So have former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and former US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, who join in writing a letter that reads in part: “We need his experience during this crucial time in Iraq. His previous experiences will serve him greatly when addressing extreme challenges in Iraq.” A Democratic Senate staffer says, “This is all about retribution.” Conservatives blame Hill for nudging Bush’s second term North Korea policy towards multi-party talks, and thusly, “[t]hey want to give Hill a black eye.” Noting that these same Republican senators have argued that Iraq is a central element in America’s national security, the staffer asks, “Why are they d_cking around and not putting an ambassador in there if Iraq is so important?” [Foreign Policy, 3/18/2009]

Entity Tags: Raymond Odierno, John McCain, Geoff Morrell, David Petraeus, Lindsey Graham, Zalmay M. Khalilzad, US Central Command, Robert M. Gates, Ryan C. Crocker, William Nash, Samuel Brownback, John Negroponte, Richard Lugar

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

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