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Condoleezza Rice: We never expected to leave Iraq in 2011

Former President George W. Bush‘s administration signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but policymakers in that administration always expected that agreement to be renegotiated to allow for an extension beyond that deadline, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable. When President Barack Obama ...

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AFP/Getty Images

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Former President George W. Bush‘s administration signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but policymakers in that administration always expected that agreement to be renegotiated to allow for an extension beyond that deadline, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable.

When President Barack Obama announced on Oct. 21 that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, his top advisors contended that since the Bush administration had signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), both administrations believed that all troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. This was part of the Obama administration’s drive to de-emphasize their failed negotiations to renegotiate that agreement and frame the withdrawal as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the Iraq war.

"The security agreements negotiated and signed in 2008 by the Bush administration stipulated this date of December 31, 2008, as the end of the military presence. So that has been in law now or been in force now for several years," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough told reporters on Oct. 21. "So it’s difficult to rebut the proposition that this was a known date."

Rice, speaking with The Cable to promote her new book No Higher Honor, said today that when the Bush administration signed the agreement, it was understood by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that there would be follow-up negotiations aimed at extending the deadline — a step that would be in both the U.S. and Iraqi interest.

"There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis," Rice said. "Everybody believed it would be better if there was some kind of residual force."

Rice said the Iraqi government, despite SOFA’s Jan. 2012 end date, was not only open to a new agreement that would include an extension for U.S. troops, but expected that a new agreement would eventually be signed.

"We certainly understood that the Iraqis preserved that option and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised," Rice said.

It’s been widely reported that the negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iraqi government this year broke down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in post-2011 Iraq. The Obama administration had demanded that immunity be granted by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the country’s primary legislative body, which was unwilling to do so for political reasons.

Rice said that she didn’t understand why the Obama administration was unable to reach an agreement on immunity with the Iraqis, considering that the previous SOFA granted immunity to U.S. soldiers and was passed overwhelmingly by the Iraqi parliament at the time.

"We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon. I don’t know what happened in these negotiations," Rice said.

Overall, Rice said that while the Iraqi Army is making progress, it still has flaws that U.S. forces could help remedy, and the wholesale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sends the wrong signal to the region.

"They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side and it would have been a good message to Iran [to keep some U.S. forces there]," Rice said. "That would have been a preferable option."

Former President George W. Bush‘s administration signed an agreement in 2008 to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, but policymakers in that administration always expected that agreement to be renegotiated to allow for an extension beyond that deadline, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable.

When President Barack Obama announced on Oct. 21 that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, his top advisors contended that since the Bush administration had signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), both administrations believed that all troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. This was part of the Obama administration’s drive to de-emphasize their failed negotiations to renegotiate that agreement and frame the withdrawal as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to end the Iraq war.

"The security agreements negotiated and signed in 2008 by the Bush administration stipulated this date of December 31, 2008, as the end of the military presence. So that has been in law now or been in force now for several years," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough told reporters on Oct. 21. "So it’s difficult to rebut the proposition that this was a known date."

Rice, speaking with The Cable to promote her new book No Higher Honor, said today that when the Bush administration signed the agreement, it was understood by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that there would be follow-up negotiations aimed at extending the deadline — a step that would be in both the U.S. and Iraqi interest.

"There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis," Rice said. "Everybody believed it would be better if there was some kind of residual force."

Rice said the Iraqi government, despite SOFA’s Jan. 2012 end date, was not only open to a new agreement that would include an extension for U.S. troops, but expected that a new agreement would eventually be signed.

"We certainly understood that the Iraqis preserved that option and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised," Rice said.

It’s been widely reported that the negotiations between the Obama administration and the Iraqi government this year broke down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops in post-2011 Iraq. The Obama administration had demanded that immunity be granted by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, the country’s primary legislative body, which was unwilling to do so for political reasons.

Rice said that she didn’t understand why the Obama administration was unable to reach an agreement on immunity with the Iraqis, considering that the previous SOFA granted immunity to U.S. soldiers and was passed overwhelmingly by the Iraqi parliament at the time.

"We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon. I don’t know what happened in these negotiations," Rice said.

Overall, Rice said that while the Iraqi Army is making progress, it still has flaws that U.S. forces could help remedy, and the wholesale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq sends the wrong signal to the region.

"They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side and it would have been a good message to Iran [to keep some U.S. forces there]," Rice said. "That would have been a preferable option."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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