January 28, 2009 – Barack Obama often has said he will issue orders to swiftly close down the Iraq war. Now military leaders are getting a chance to tell the new commander in chief how they could comply, and why he might want to wait.
Obama was to hear the opinions of the four U.S. military service chiefs on Wednesday in a meeting the White House called one more step toward fulfilling his promise of withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will be ready with a rough sketch of what would be required to fulfill the president’s timetable for a 16-month withdrawal.
Defense officials have said they can meet Obama’s campaign pledge, but several officials have signaled that a fast withdrawal could upset the fragile security that currently holds in Iraq.
“We are developing other options as well,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday. “We are laying out, with each of the options we will present to him, our view – each of the commander’s – of the risks associated with that timeline.”
In preparing those, Obama has asked for more information behind assumptions and for additional analysis, Gates said. “I think that the president will listen to the commanders,” he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday that all the scenarios will meet the president’s “desire for a responsible drawdown that preserves the security gains we have made in Iraq and protects our forces.”
Mullen said he hopes to give Obama that menu “in the very near future,” but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said there will be no decisions made at Wednesday’s meeting.
The Joint Chiefs are among those in the Pentagon hierarchy who have expressed concerns about the impact that long, repeated war tours in Iraq have had on the U.S. military.
Much of the discussion is also expected to look ahead to the building fight in Afghanistan and how Obama’s plans to add forces and resources there will depend in part on the success of the Iraq exit. The Pentagon is nearing an announcement of new troop deployments in Afghanistan, with forces arriving in numbers in the spring and summer.
Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to immediately order the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by May 2010. He said he would call in the Joint Chiefs and tell them so on his first day in office, a bit of campaign hyperbole that has evolved in practice into a series of consultations with military leaders, including commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new president also has said he would adjust his timeline if it would risk the safety of U.S. troops remaining behind to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida or if it would cause backsliding in Iraqi stability.
“Ultimately the commander in chief will decide which option he prefers and how much risk he can accept,” Morrell said.
Obama has not said when he plans to announce a new Iraq plan. Iraqi leaders already have said they want to stick to terms of an agreement negotiated with the United States last year that would leave some fighting forces in place longer.
“The president has laid down the test of ensuring that he hears specifically from both those on the ground and in the region before he makes decisions on our force posture going forward,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
Obama has not changed his determination that the war must end, his spokesman said.
“There will be a new mission in Iraq,” Gibbs said.