General Ray Odierno, after months of appearing to want to wriggle out of the requirement in the Status of Forces Agreement that US troops depart Iraq by the end of 2011, reversed himself forcefully on CNN on Sunday:
‘ KING: And on a scale of 1 to 10, sir, how confident are you, 10 being fully confident, that you will meet that deadline, that all U.S. troops will be gone at the end of 2011?
ODIERNO: As you ask me today, I believe it’s a 10 that we will be gone by 2011.’
The discrepancy between Odierno’s earlier statements to journalist Tom Ricks, reported in the latter’s The Gamble, is significant– he earlier maintained that the US would have 30,000 troops in Iraq in 2016.
His appearance with King may have been necessitated by his recent interview in the Times of London , in which he questioned the June 30, 2009, deadline for an end to the patrolling of Iraqi cities by US combat troops. Odierno suggested that more, not fewer US troops might be needed in Mosul and Baquba over the next year.
But his statement on Sunday about the end-process was unequivocal. There are two possible explanations. One is that Odierno’s main problem is with the timeline within the troop withdrawal timetable, not with the ultimate withdrawal. Thus, he is opposed to the ban on combat patrols by US troops after June of this year, and he is uncomfortable with the August 31, 2010 deadline for combat troops to be out of Iraq. But it may be that his dissatisfaction with those earlier deadlines derives precisely from his desire to shape Iraq’s security environment decisively before the total withdrawal.
The other possibility is that he was becoming known for insubordination against al-Maliki’s and Obama’s plans for a US troop withdrawal, and finally had to express his commitment to the 2011 deadline if he was to keep his job and his career.
In the former case, Odierno has clarified his own plans for the next 2 1/2 years in Iraq, which differ in some respects from what is envisaged in the Status of Forces Agreement and by Obama. In the latter case, we just saw a 180 degree turn on the part of a key American general, who has been subordinated to Obama and al-Maliki.
Here is the transcript of the interview (h/t HuffPo:
‘ JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR Here to talk about the president’s visit and the challenges in keeping with the withdrawal schedule is the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. He joins us from Camp Victory in Baghdad.
Sir. Happy Easter to you, and thank you for joining us. Let me start with the big challenge you face. In just 11 weeks you’re supposed to have your troops out of Mosul, out of Baqubah, out of other major cities. And you have an uptick in violence in recent days. Will you meet the deadline or will you have to keep the troops there?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO, COMMANDER, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: Well, first, John, if I could, I would like to wish happy Easter to everyone back in the United States, especially to all of the family and friends of our service members who continue to serve over here. It’s a real dedication to their great work that has helped our soldiers over here.
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John, what I would tell you is overall violence remains at 2003 lows. However, as you have seen over the last week or so, there are still some elements here that are able still to conduct some very serious attacks.
So we will continue to conduct assessments along with the government of Iraq as we move forwards the June 30th deadline. If we believe that we’ll need troops to maintain a presence in some of the cities, we’ll recommend that, but, ultimately, it will the decision of Prime Minister Maliki.
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KING: And when the president was there, sir, just the other day, did you discuss this with him and did you, in fact, maybe ask him to pressure the Iraqi government? You know the political pressures, not only on our president here in the United States, but on Prime Minister Maliki.
Did you ask the president to say, look, if we need more time you need to nudge them to give it to us?
ODIERNO: Well, again, we did have good discussions. We went through all of the major issues facing Iraq now with the president. What we discussed is there is some diplomatic actions that have to be taken.
Listen, Prime Minister Maliki understands the tensions in Mosul. He understands there’s an assessment that has to be made. I’m confident that we will make a joint assessment and then he will make a decision. We will tell him what we believe is the right thing to do but ultimately it will up to him to make that decision.
KING: I want to remind our viewers, as we have this conversation, about the timelines and the deadlines you face. June 30th of this year, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Baghdad and the other major Iraqi cities. It is August 31st, 2010, all U.S. combat troops are supposed to be out of Iraq, leaving about 50,000 behind. And then by December 31st, 2011, all U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Sir, in your conversations with President Obama, how comfortable do you feel that if you go to him at any point, whether it’s one of these interim deadlines or the bigger deadline in 2011, you say, sir, I need more time or, sir, I need more troops, that you will get what you need?
ODIERNO: Well, again, he understands, as he has stated, that there is still much work to be done here in Iraq. I believe he has given me the flexibility over the next 18 months in order to adjust the size of the force that I need in order to accomplish the mission. What we’re trying to do is set the conditions for Iraq to take over and be able to secure themselves.
And so we’ll continue to do that. And I have the flexibility to do that. The president has given that to me.
John, if I could make one correction. On August 31st, it is that we will have a change in mission here in Iraq and we will no longer conduct combat operations. It’s not necessarily that all combat troops will be out of Iraq by that date.
KING: Thank you for the correction, sir. And it’s well noted, because let me follow on that point. Are you concerned at all? The mission went off-track at the beginning, way back, six years ago when there weren’t enough troops to do everything that needed to be done. Are you concerned, sir, when you get to that point, when you’re looking at 50,000 troops or so that you will have too few troops to do what you need to do or are you confident that if you need more, you’ll get them?
ODIERNO: Well, what has changed, John, is that the Iraqi security forces have matured significantly. They now have 250,000, army. They have over 400,000 police. They are continuing to improve in their competency. So that is helping significantly.
So it is not the same as it was in 2004 or 2005 or 2006. So part of the judgment will be how much can they do. They are proving every day that they are becoming more competent, so the decision will be made as how much of U.S. forces are needed in order to continue to support them to keep the stability that we’re starting to see here in Iraq.
KING: And, sir, I’ve walked over to our map so can I show our viewers what has happened over the timeline of the past six years. Back in May 2003, a little over 142,000 troops. And if you follow the timeline over, you see here in October 2007 because of your surge strategy, 170,000 troops on the ground. And we’re down now somewhere in the area of 140,000 troops on the ground.
In terms of the pace of operations, the last time I was there and out with troops in the field was a little more than a year ago. And I did a convoy run up from Camp Anaconda up to Baqubah. That was a pretty dicey time, about every other convoy was experiencing an IED attack.
In terms of the reports you get back from the daily operations of the troops, is it as bad as it was then or have things improved significantly?
ODIERNO: Yes, they’ve improved significantly. And I think you would be surprised if you were here again. Obviously, we still have some very serious incidents, based on one this week.
But, again, it’s much safer. In March, our combat fatalities were the lowest they’ve been since the beginning of the war. The number of incidents in March was the lowest month of incidents we’ve had since really right back to June of 2003 before the insurgency started.
So there has been a clear improvement of security here. The issue is, can we maintain that — can the Iraqis maintain it? And that is what we’re working through now is we want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out.
And that is what we’re assessing and constantly doing. I believe we’re on track to do that. We have a schedule to reduce our forces. I have flexibility to change that within the next 18 months, and we’ll continue to look at that very closely as we move forward.
KING: And you mentioned that March was a relatively good month. I want to, again, play a little timeline here so that our viewers can see it here. This is U.S. troops killed in Iraq and you see the numbers from 2003 moving forward. 2007 at the height of the surge was the highest year and 51 so far, I hesitate to say, only 51 so far in 2009.
You mentioned that March was a good month, sir. That was nine Americans killed in March. But already we’ve hit the number nine 12 days into the month of April because of a few tragic events in recent days.
Why? Are you seeing that this — is this just random events or are you seeing some coordination of increase in violence?
ODIERNO: Yes. What I see is there are some cells out there who are still capable of conducting suicide attacks. And, unfortunately, had a tragic attack in Mosul this past week of a suicide bomber who killed five of our soldiers. Tragic, tragic event.
They have that capacity still. It’s much less than it has ever been. They are very small cells throughout Iraq. We continue to be aggressive at going after them with the Iraqi security forces.
But this is not a significant increase in overall lack of security. There just are still some suicide bombers and those who profess suicide attacks that are still very dangerous.
KING: And help those military families and other Americans watching on this Easter Sunday morning assess where you are now. We talked at the beginning about the potential that you might have to ask for a little bit more time in Mosul, in Baqubah, in other cities.
Is this in part because you’re saving the worst, the hardest challenges for last, if you will? That al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups that oppose your being there have concentrated in certain areas and these are the last fronts?
ODIERNO: Well, what we’ve done is we’ve driven them there, John, through our operations over the last two years. And we’ve continued to eliminate areas where they are no longer welcome by the Iraqi people. They are rejected. They are no longer able to conduct operations so they’ve moved to certain areas.
One is in the desert near Syria between Syria and the city of Mosul, and then inside of Mosul. So we now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some serious attacks.
The same in Baqubah. Although Baquba actually has been extremely safe, areas east of there towards the Iranian border still have some remnants of al Qaeda and other extremists that are still able to do some operations.
So we’re in the process of routing them out with the Iraqi security forces.
KING: You just mentioned there, sir, areas near the Syrian border, and areas near the Iranian border which begs the question for the past six years we’ve had these conversations about Syria letting people back and forth across the border, in fact, maybe even supporting some of them.
Iran letting people back and forth, letting weapons across the border, and in fact training some of the people who are trying to kill the men and women who serve under you, sir.
What is the status of Iran and Syria? Are they still as problematic as they were before or have we seen any improvement?
ODIERNO: Well, first, we’ve been able to significantly limit the ability of them to traffic foreign fighters in through Syria. We have done that through major operations. We made it extremely difficult. The Iraqis have helped significantly in closing their borders and making it more difficult for foreign fighters and suicide attackers to come across.
They are still able to come across in very small numbers. There’s still some of a facilitation network that still is in Syria.
In terms of Iran, Iran, although I would — the support is a bit less than it was, there’s still reports that training, funding, and the providing of weapons still goes on. Although it’s at a smaller level, it’s still very sophisticated and is still trying to impact the stability situation here in Iraq.
KING: More of our conversation with General Ray Odierno in just a moment. And later, also, is President Obama the most polarizing president of recent times? We’ll debate that question and more with two of our top political strategists. Our “State of the Union” report will be right back.
KING: We’re back with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
And, General, I want to ask you a bit about what I find fascinating is; that is, your relationship with the new commander in chief, someone who was so vigorously opposed to the war effort you now lead.
And I want to show our viewers a bit of a timeline, here.
It was back in October 2002 when then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama, not even in the United States Senate yet, declared he was against the war in Iraq.
And then, in January of 2007, Senator Barack Obama, a United States senator, at this point, and candidate for the presidency of the United States, spoke out strongly against the surge policy that General Odierno pushed for.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The responsible course of action for the United States, for Iraq, and for our troops is to oppose this reckless escalation and to pursue a new policy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: But since winning the election and becoming commander in chief, a decidedly different tone from President Obama, when it comes to the war in Iraq, including his visit to Baghdad just this past Tuesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Every mission that’s been assigned, from getting rid of Saddam to reducing violence to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and, for that, you have the thanks of the American people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
General Odierno, you are the father of the surge strategy. You pushed for it when even many of your commanders wanted to get troops out of Iraq.
How hard is it to develop a rapport with a president of the United States who thought your strategy was a reckless escalation?
ODIERNO: Well, first off, he’s our commander in chief. And as the commander in chief, we take direction from him. He has — in all of the meetings I’ve had with him, he is very attentive; he’s very — he listens. He is incredibly intelligent. He talks through the issues, and — and we discuss it. He makes a decision and then we execute those decisions.
And that’s all you can expect out of your commander in chief. And he’s — I’ve been very pleased with the interaction that I’ve been able to have with him.
KING: Has he ever said, General, you know, Ray, you were right; I was wrong about the surge?
ODIERNO: I don’t think we talked about that ever.
KING: Let me — let me ask you — let me move back to a more serious question, and the idea that, in the previous administration and in your service prior to this administration, you were very clear that you thought these decisions should not be based on political timelines; they should be based on conditions on the ground.
I understand you’re executing the orders of the commander in chief. I just want to get a sense of, are you concerned at all that the bad guys, the enemy, knows the timeline, too, and they are simply going into hiding, hoarding their resources, gathering their weapons and waiting for you to leave?
ODIERNO: There is always that potential. But, again, let me remind everyone what change was in December when the United States and the government of Iraq signed an agreement, a bilateral agreement that put the timeline in place, that said we would withdraw all our forces by 31 December, 2011.
In my mind, that was historic. It allowed Iraq to prove that it has its own sovereignty. It allows them, now, to move forward and take control, which was always — it’s always been our goal, is that they can control the stability in their country.
So I think I feel comfortable with that timeline. I did back in December. I do now. We continue to work with the government of Iraq so they can meet that timeline, so that they are able to maintain stability once we leave. I still believe we’re on track with that, as we talk about this today.
KING: You say you’re comfortable with that timeline, sir. I want you to expound on that, a little bit. Because, back in — I’m holding up a copy of Tom Ricks’ book, “The Gamble.” It’s a fascinating book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist about the war effort in Iraq.
And you told him, in that book — this is — he’s quoting you in that book. “When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2015, well after Obama’s first term, Odierno said, ‘I would like to see a force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000, with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against Al Qaida in Iraq and its allies.'”
Now, certainly, this was before the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated — and I want to make that clear — when you made those remarks.
But you have to implement this strategy because it is a signed agreement between the government of Iraq and the United States of America. But do you personally think it would be best that, for the foreseeable future, to leave 30,000 or so behind?
ODIERNO: Well, again, what I would tell you is it really has always been about Iraqi — Iraqis securing their own country. So the issue becomes, do we think they will be able to do that?
As they continue to improve in the operations they’ve been able to conduct, I believe that they will be able to do that by the end of 2011.
And so the most important thing for us is to help them now to reduce the risk that will be left with them once we depart at the end of 2011. We will continue to train and advise. We’ll continue to assist; we’ll continue to conduct combat operations, where we believe it’s necessary.
And I do believe, now, that it is probably the right time frame.
KING: And on a scale of 1 to 10, sir, how confident are you, 10 being fully confident, that you will meet that deadline, that all U.S. troops will be gone at the end of 2011?
ODIERNO: As you ask me today, I believe it’s a 10 that we will be gone by 2011.
KING: That’s a — that’s a bold statement. I want to ask you, a little bit, about your current work. Because a lot of what you’re doing requires the Iraqi security forces to get up to speed, and that, of course, is part of your mission.
But the other part of the equation is the Iraqi political environment. And in that environment, you are finding yourself, I’m told, in some meetings that you would prefer that the lead person be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and you don’t have a U.S. ambassador at the moment. The nomination of Chris Hill is held up at the moment in the United States Senate.
Does that hurt the U.S. effort in Iraq, not having an ambassador on the ground?
ODIERNO: Well, I mean I believe it’s important to have an ambassador here. It’s important to have an ambassador in all of our key countries. And Iraq is a very important country in our national strategy. So, of course, it would be much better to have our ambassador here. We have a process that we have to go through to get our ambassadors confirmed. We’re going through that process. Hopefully we’ll have an ambassador out here very soon. It would certainly help to have an ambassador here as quickly as possible.
KING: You work now in an administration that doesn’t like the term war on terror. The Bush administration used that term quite frequently. Does that matter to you? The men and women who are risking their lives every day, are they fighting the war on terror in General Odierno’s view or something else?
ODIERNO: Well, what they are doing is fighting for the security of United States. So it doesn’t matter what you call it. We’re here to ensure that we better secure the — all of the people of our country and that by doing that, by defeating terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, we’re here to accomplish what we believe is important to maintain security for our country.
KING: I want to ask you, sir, as a general and as a parent of someone who was hurt in Iraq, your son suffered a devastating injury, but, thank God, was not hurt any further than that in Iraq. We have a new policy where they have opened Dover and allowed media coverage of the returning bodies, the caskets of those who suffer the ultimate sacrifice overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you support that policy? Do you think it helps the American people better understand the price those young men and women are paying, or do you think it’s too much?
ODIERNO: I think the most important piece of that was that you give the families the choice. What we care about is the families have their choice. We want to respect the families. So it always comes down to that. So I’m very pleased the families gets to choose whether that coverage happens or not and I think that’s the right thing.
KING: I want to ask you lastly, sir, a lot people now watch more troops going into Afghanistan and say well, the surge worked in Iraq, a surge will work in Afghanistan. I want to give you an opportunity to say what you think is similar and importantly what you think is different in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
ODIERNO: Well, I don’t really — I don’t want to comment too much on Afghanistan. I’ve spent an awful lot of time here in Iraq and I consider myself to understand Iraq. I don’t consider myself to fully understand Afghanistan. But what I do know, some of the concepts are the same. You have to secure the population. Once you secure the population, it is much easier than to fight the terrorists, because the population then helps you. When they’re not secure, when they feel like they are being terrorized, it’s much more difficult for them to support any effort to defeat these terrorists. So I think that concept is clearly the same. The only other thing I would say is that it is a civil/military problem. It is not just a military solution. And I know that in Afghanistan, they’re working towards a civil/military solution. So I think those are the keys as we move forward.
KING: General Ray Odierno joining us from Baghdad this morning. Sir, we thank you for your time and we thank you and the thousands of men and women under you there in Iraq for their military service and you should know you are in our thoughts and prayers every day as we go forward.
ODIERNO: Thank you very much, John. Once again, Happy Easter to all Americans.
KING: General, one other thing I wanted to mention. I’m sorry, before I do let you go. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy and thought I had a friend in Ray Odierno on the show but I understand you have launched Facebook site so that you can better communicate with folks back here in the United States and we’re showing it on our monitors before we let you go.
I just want you to know my resistance to Facebook has now crumbled thanks to Ray Odierno. Explain why you think this is important.
ODIERNO: Well, I want to — I think it’s important that people can reach out and ask questions and maybe educate them a little bit more on what is going on here in Iraq. And get to know us a little bit better. This is new for me. This is new ground so we’ll see how it goes but I’m actually pretty excited about it.
KING: Well, we’ll see how many people are watching today by how many friends you get in the next few hours. Again, general, Happy Easter to you and the men and women serving in Iraq and take care, sir.
ODIERNO: Thanks, John. I appreciate it very much. ‘