As the Trump administration appears to be close to finalizing a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, many members of the foreign-policy establishment are urging the administration not to repeat the mistakes the Obama administration made in Iraq by withdrawing all American forces in December 2011. President Barack Obama did so despite some warnings that the withdrawal of American troops could lead to a resurgence of violence.
A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by retired Gen. David Petraeus and foreign-policy commentator Vance Serchuk, as well as a recent editorial from the Washington Post, blame Obama for unnecessarily leaving Iraq. Trump loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) echoes those claims and argues that Trump should learn from Obama’s mistakes.
But based upon my interactions with Iraqi government officials from 2008 to 2011, I know that the claims of these commentators and that of Graham are wrong, and that any blame for leaving Iraq should fall not on the Obama administration, but on the Bush administration—which got us into the senseless invasion and occupation of Iraq in the first place and made an agreement to leave that country.
During the summer of 2008, when I was advising the Obama campaign on foreign-policy matters, I met with the Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. He said that the Malaki government would not agree to sign a Status of Forces Agreement, which would allow U.S. troops to legally remain in Iraq, unless the United States agreed to remove all of its troops by the end of 2011—something the Bush administration agreed to before leaving office. Denis McDonough— who eventually went on to become Obama’s chief of staff, and who at that time was on the campaign trail with then-candidate Obama—seemed surprised by this information.
In October 2009, during a visit to Iraq to help plan the withdrawal, organized by Army Gen. Ray Odierno—at that time the U.S. commander—I again raised the issue with several Iraqi officials. I raised the issue again with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malaki himself when he came to Washington, in December 2011, with the same result. At this December meeting, which was organized by former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Malaki reiterated that the Americans had essentially signed an agreement and must keep it.
At that meeting, Gen. James L. Jones, Obama’s first national security advisor, said that the president was willing to leave up to ten thousand troops in Iraq. By leaving Iraq in 2011, Obama did what the elected Iraqi government wanted and which his predecessor agreed to. This was the correct thing to do. To do otherwise would have violated the principles for which we had ostensibly fought the war.
The situation in Afghanistan is dramatically different. Unlike Iraq, which in 2011 was relatively peaceful and remained so for another three years, before the Syrian Civil War had begun, the war in Afghanistan is still being waged. In addition to the Taliban, the Islamic State is already a large presence: in August, a suicide bomber for the Islamic State blew himself up, killing eighty people and wounding another 165 at a wedding in Kabul. While the Taliban want America to withdraw completely, as did the elected Malaki government, the democratically-elected Afghanistan government does not want the United States to leave any time soon.
Therefore, if the Trump administration follows the advice of some of his national-security aides and the foreign-policy establishment and decides not to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan as part of an agreement with the Taliban, and therefore maintains a permanent presence, then he will have the support of the internationally recognized and democratically-elected government—something Obama did not have when he decided to leave troops in Iraq.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) from 1981 through 1985.