The Cable

Obama’s Iraq guy leaves government; says Iraq political situation still being sorted out

Only one day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, President Barack Obama‘s main Pentagon advisor on the country, Colin Kahl, left government to return to academia. In an interview today with The Cable, Kahl says he was brought in to help wind down the war, and now that job is done. “I’m turning back ...

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Only one day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, President Barack Obama‘s main Pentagon advisor on the country, Colin Kahl, left government to return to academia. In an interview today with The Cable, Kahl says he was brought in to help wind down the war, and now that job is done.

“I’m turning back into academic pumpkin after a three-year leave,” said Kahl. “I had a timeline for leaving just like the U.S. had a timeline for leaving. It wasn’t a coincidence.”

Kahl will return to the two jobs he held before joining the Obama administration as one of its first political appointees in February 2009. He will be a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security. The first course he will teach upon returning to Georgetown is called, “Iran and the bomb.”

Kahl was initially granted a two-year leave from Georgetown so he “could help oversee the drawdown from Iraq,” he said. Last year, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed a letter to Georgetown asking it to extend Kahl’s leave until the end of 2011. He technically leaves government on Dec. 31, but is already out of the building.

Until a replacement is found, Kahl’s shop at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) will be led by acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Brig. Gen. Mike Minahan, an Air Force officer who was previously the commander of the expeditionary air wing in the United Arab Emirates. A new political appointee should be named by the end of the year.

Kahl’s exit leaves another high-level vacancy at OSD. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy resigned this month to spend more time with her family. The post of assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs has been vacant since April, as the president’s nominee, Mark Lippert, is stalled in the Senate. In February, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Sandy Vershbow will leave the Pentagon to become deputy secretary general of NATO.

Kahl came to the attention of the foreign policy community during Obama’s presidential campaign, when he was a key architect of candidate Obama’s platform for ending the Iraq war. In July, 2008, Kahl co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs in which he wrote, “Now, the principal impediment to long-term stability in Iraq is the reluctance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s central government to engage in genuine political accommodation.”

Kahl argued for “conditional engagement” with the Iraqi government, whereby the United States would use the threat of abandonment to pressure the Iraqis to work together.

“In the end, this approach may not work. If the Iraqis prove unwilling to move toward accommodation, then no number of U.S. forces will be able to produce sustainable stability, and the strategic costs of maintaining a significant presence will outweigh the benefits,” Kahl wrote.

Those words seem especially prescient today, as Maliki has issued arrest warrants for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and his aides, causing the main opposition bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to boycott the parliament, in what has become an escalating political crisis.

“The Americans have pulled out without completing the job they should have finished. We have warned them that we don’t have a political process which is inclusive of all Iraqis and we don’t have a full-blown state in Iraq,” Allawi said.

Kahl told The Cable today that the Iraqi political blocs are jostling for power, which is natural, but that the international community should give the situation time to play out while encouraging all sides to engage each other politically and refrain from violence.

“We’ve seen these crisis pop up every once in a while, people are testing the boundaries of a new Iraq,” he said. “We are concerned about what’s going on and we communicated to the Iraqis that it’s imperative that the process moving forward happen with full transparency and within the rule of law.”

Many in Congress blame the Obama administration for not securing a new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that would have allowed several thousand U.S. troops to remain in a training mission, which would also have had the effect of preserving greater U.S. influence in Iraq.

“We were willing to have a long term training relationship with the Iraqis, the entire question was how can we shape the relationship in the way that meets the needs of the Iraqis and offers our personnel legal protections,” Kahl said, explaining that without legal immunity for U.S. troops approved formally by the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR), the administration had no choice but to pull out its military personnel.

“At the end of the day, the Iraqis wanted trainers but weren’t willing to put the SOFA agreement through the COR for a vote,” he said. “Once that decision happened, we had to shape the training through a different model, which is through the Office of Security Cooperation [at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad]. So that’s the model we’re going with moving forward.”

Kahl may be leaving government, but he said the U.S. government is not leaving Iraq. He implied that in the future, more U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation could be in the offing.

“We shouldn’t think of the end of this year as the end,” he said. “Over the next couple of years, our security relationship will evolve. This is to be continued…”

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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