Obama Drops 2009 Pledge to Withdraw Combat Troops from Iraq

IPS —  Seventeen months after President Barack Obama pledged to withdraw all combat brigades from Iraq by September 1, 2010, he quietly abandoned that pledge Monday, admitting implicitly that such combat brigades would remain until the end of 2011.

Obama declared in a speech to disabled U.S. veterans in Atlanta that “America’s combat mission in Iraq” would end by the end of August, to be replaced by a mission of “supporting and training Iraqi security forces”.

That statement was in line with the pledge he had made on February 27, 2009, when he said, “Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

In the sentence preceding that pledge, however, he had said, “I have chosen a timeline that will remove our combat brigades over the next 18 months.” Obama said nothing in his speech Monday about withdrawing “combat brigades” or “combat troops” from Iraq until the end of 2011.

Even the concept of “ending the U.S. combat mission” may be highly misleading, much like the concept of “withdrawing U.S. combat brigades” was in 2009.

Under the administration’s definition of the concept, combat operations will continue after August 2010, but will be defined as the secondary role of U.S. forces in Iraq. The primary role will be to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces.

An official who spoke with IPS on condition that his statements would be attributed to a “senior administration official” acknowledged that the 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq beyond the deadline will have the same combat capabilities as the combat brigades that have been withdrawn.

The official also acknowledged that the troops will engage in some combat but suggested that the combat would be “mostly” for defensive purposes.

That language implied that there might be circumstances in which U.S. forces would carry out offensive operations as well.

IPS has learned, in fact, that the question of what kind of combat U.S. troops might become involved in depends in part on the Iraqi government, which will still be able to request offensive military actions by U.S. troops if it feels it necessary.

Obama’s jettisoning of one of his key campaign promises and of a high-profile pledge early in his administration without explicit acknowledgement highlights the way in which language on national security policy can be manipulated for political benefit with the acquiescence of the news media.

Obama’s apparent pledge of withdrawal of combat troops by the September 1 deadline in his February 27, 2009 speech generated headlines across the commercial news media. That allowed the administration to satisfy its anti-war Democratic Party base on a pivotal national security policy issue.

At the same time, however, it allowed Obama to back away from his campaign promise on Iraq withdrawal, and to signal to those political and bureaucratic forces backing a long- term military presence in Iraq that he had no intention of pulling out all combat troops at least until the end of 2011.

He could do so because the news media were inclined to let the apparent Obama withdrawal pledge stand as the dominant narrative line, even though the evidence indicated it was a falsehood.

Only a few days after the Obama speech, Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, was more forthright about the policy. In an appearance on Meet the Press March 1, 2009, Gates said the “transition force” remaining after August 31, 2010 would have “a very different kind of mission”, and that the units remaining in Iraq “will be characterised differently”.

“They will be called advisory and assistance brigades,” said Gates. “They won’t be called combat brigades.”

But “advisory and assistance brigades” were configured with the same combat capabilities as the “combat brigade teams” which had been the basic U.S. military unit of combat organisation for six years, as IPS reported in March 20009.

Gates was thus signaling that the military solution to the problem of Obama’s combat troop withdrawal pledge had been accepted by the White House.

That plan had been developed in late 2008 by Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, who were determined to get Obama to abandon his pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

They came up with the idea of “remissioning” – sticking a non-combat label on the combat brigade teams — as a way for Obama to appear to be delivering on his campaign pledge while actually abandoning it.

The “remissioning” scheme was then presented to Obama by Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in Chicago on December 15, 2008, according a report in the New York Times three days later.

It was hardly a secret that the Obama administration was using the “remissioning” ploy to get around the political problem created by his acceding to military demands to maintain combat troops in Iraq for nearly three more years.

Despite the fact that the disparity between Obama’s public declaration and the reality of the policy was an obvious and major political story, however, the news media – including the New York Times, which had carried multiple stories about the military’s “remissioning” scheme – failed to report on it.

The “senior administration official” told IPS that Obama is still “committed to withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011”. That is the withdrawal deadline in the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement of November 2008.

But the same military and Pentagon officials who prevailed on Obama to back down on his withdrawal pledge also have pressed in the past for continued U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2011, regardless of the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Iraqi government.

In November 2008, after Obama’s election, Gen. Odierno was asked by Washington Post correspondent, Tom Ricks, “what the U.S. military presence would look like around 2014 or 2015”. Odierno said he “would like to see a …force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000”, which would still be carrying out combat operations.

Last February, Odierno requested that a combat brigade be stationed in Kirkuk to avoid an outbreak of war involving Kurdish and Iraqi forces vying for the region’s oil resources – and that it be openly labeled as such – according to Ricks.

In light of the fact that Obama had already agreed to Odierno’s “remissioning” dodge, the only reason for such a request would be to lay the groundwork for keeping a brigade there beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline.

Obama brushed off the proposal, according to Ricks, but it was unclear whether the reason was that Iraqi political negotiations over a new government were still ongoing.

In July, Odierno suggested that a U.N. peacekeeping force might be needed in Kirkuk after 2011, along with a hint that a continued U.S. presence there might be requested by the Iraqi government.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

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  1. Rehmat said on August 4th, 2010 at 8:17am #

    Ben Obama has told the disabled US veterans in Atlanta that as per his February 27, 2009 pledge, US combat forces will be leaving this month. However, Obama was smart enough not to tell the veterans that after wasting over US$800 billion of taxpayers’ money and 4300 US soldier dead and another 100,000 wounded – he is still going to leave 50,000 US soldiers in Iraq to look after the interests of Israel in the Middle East….

    In other words, Ben Obama has changed US military occupation from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to “Operation New Dawn”.


  2. Mark Richey said on August 4th, 2010 at 10:46am #

    The people who supported Obama, or at least refused to openly attack him, such as MECA, ANSWER, UFPJ, Alan Maki, American Conscience, etc. etc., just to name examples…

    Have a lot of explaining to do.

    But, instead, of course, they will just keep relying on liberal Democrats, and call themselves by new names.

    The recent anitwar conference was an implicit admission of the impotence of the existing organizations, since they were hardly mentioned.

    But instead of drawing any lessons from that, the usual sort of Obama people like Code Pink, which recently talked about the progressive role of the US military in AFghanistan, dominated this meeting, and will continue the ANSWER style under a new name.

  3. mary said on August 5th, 2010 at 3:41am #

    The editors of Medialens have posted this today:

    Military dog recovers from PTSD after Iraq war
    Posted by The Editors on August 5, 2010, 9:52 am


    From our book, Newspeak:

    In his book, A Different Kind Of War: The UN Sanctions Regime In
    Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for
    Iraq, wrote: ‘At no time during the years of comprehensive economic
    sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs
    for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the
    Oil-For-Food programme.’30 For example, during ‘phase v’ of the
    Oil-For-Food programme, from November 1998 to May 1999, each
    Iraqi received a food allocation worth $49, or 27 cents per day! Von
    Sponeck commented that ‘the UN was more humane with its dogs
    than with the Iraqi people’:31 $160 was allocated for food for each UN
    dog over the same period. Also during ‘phase v’, $5.80 worth of health
    supplies were available per person, $1.60 for water and sanitation,
    $4.10 for agriculture, $2.50 for electricity and $1.00 for education.
    Though it is rarely reported, this was in fact not humanitarian aid;
    it was funded through the sale of Iraqi oil (as was the dog food). Von
    Sponeck commented:

    Whoever the members of the UN security council were, as individuals and
    the countries they represented during the twelve years of sanctions, they
    – individually and collectively – had the knowledge of all the aspects of the
    human catastrophe that was unfolding in Iraq… The hard-line approach prevailed, with the result that practically an entire
    nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and
    mental foundations.32

    In particular, von Sponeck blames Britain and the United States,
    who, as ‘the main and permanent hardliners’, were ‘unable to
    strike a balance between their political objectives and humanitarian

    And recall the focus on Marjan the one-eyed lion in Kabul zoo:

    (medialens.org/alerts/02/020117_de_Afghanistan_BBC_reply.html )

  4. mary said on August 5th, 2010 at 3:43am #

    and this was posted on Craig Murray’s blog:


    Anthony Charles Lynton Blair will be signing his book ‘A Journey’ at Waterstones Piccadilly on 8th September at 1 pm. No doubt his goon squad is in readiness for all eventualities.

    I was contemplating going, writing on the frontispiece ‘In memory of the millions of Iraqis I have helped to kill and maim, and make widow, orphan, deformed and refugee’ and presenting it to him for signature.


    Random House have of course given him a £4.6 million advance. I hope they do not recover their investment.


    The book should be called ‘A Journey to The Hague’.

  5. Rehmat said on August 5th, 2010 at 6:06am #

    Some of the pro-Israel warmongers in Obama’s adminisetration are in favor of US forces pull-out from Iraq because the believe these forces would come handy after the new Israeli ‘Samson Option (aka 9/11)’ to attack the Islamic Republic.