As Islamic State Brewed in Iraq, Clinton’s State Department Reduced Eyes and Ears on the Ground
A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.
Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.
Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.
Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.
Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. In a speech Monday on how he would deal with terrorist threats, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.”
But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge.
Documents and interviews point to ambitious plans by State Department officials to take control of dozens of military-run programs in Iraq, from training assistance for Iraqi police to new intelligence-collection outposts in Mosul and other key Iraqi cities. But the State Department scrapped or truncated many of the plans, sometimes at the behest of a skeptical Congress and other times on orders from the White House, which balked at the high costs and potential risks of U.S. civilians being killed or kidnapped. Still other efforts were thwarted by a Maliki government that viewed many of the programs as an unwelcome intrusion in Iraqi affairs.
Senior State Department leaders were at fault as well, according to documents and interviews with officials who helped manage Iraqi aid programs after the withdrawal. By early 2012, pressed by the White House to reduce the U.S. civilian footprint in Iraq, the department had begun implementing sweeping, across-the-board cuts that extended to security and counterterrorism initiatives once considered crucial for Iraq’s stability after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post found.
Clinton, a member of the administration’s national security team at the time, argued at first in favor of many programs that the State Department eventually cut, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal White House deliberations. For the Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. policy misadventures in Iraq, from the initial invasion and occupation to the disasters after the U.S. troop withdrawal, have persistently undermined Clinton’s efforts to tout her extensive record in foreign policy. Candidate Clinton has frequently pushed for more assertive engagement with Iraq’s military and tribal alliances to help repel the Islamic State, essentially arguing for an expansion of programs that were curtailed on her watch after the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
A State Department team that administered the cuts under White House direction eventually ended up with a $1.6 billion surplus — money initially appropriated for Iraq that was freed for use in other conflict zones, including Libya, officials and documents say.
The downscaling was done over the objections of U.S. military leaders on the ground, who said the slashing of key assistance programs — in a few cases, by more than 90 percent — left the U.S. government increasingly in the dark about developments outside the Iraqi capital. Some former officers who managed Iraqi aid programs say the cuts were a factor in the slow deterioration of Iraq’s security forces in the months before the Islamic State’s 2014 assault.
“Our job was to prevent this from happening,” said retired Rear Adm. Edward Winters, a former Navy SEAL and deputy director of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, a Pentagon organization overseen by the State Department that managed the bilateral security relationship.
“We felt the capability to do that was being taken away.”
‘A Strategic Vacuum’
Current and former Obama administration officials, including some who sparred with the State Department over Iraq policy, defend Clinton as one of the most vocal advocates for a muscular U.S. presence in Iraq after the withdrawal deadline. Clinton argued publicly and privately for keeping a contingent of U.S. troops in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011, and when that effort failed, she lobbied the White House and Congress for money to fund civilian-run security programs in Iraq, her former aides said. In written memos and in meetings as part of the president’s national security team, she questioned Maliki’s ability to keep the country united and warned that instability could lead to a resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, the terrorist group that later renamed itself the Islamic State, the officials said.
“She was seized with this,” recalled Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who was national security adviser to Vice President Biden and then deputy national security adviser to President Obama during key discussions about Iraq policy. “She recognized that AQI was down but not out, and pressed the Iraqis, and us, to keep taking the fight to them.”
But, in scaling back civilian assistance to Iraq, Clinton’s aides cut aggressively and sometimes unwisely, internal auditors later concluded. The reductions met cost-cutting goals but did not “fully consider U.S. foreign policy priorities in Iraq,” an internal review by the State Department’s inspector general said. Some of the cuts were not fully implemented until after Clinton’s departure in early 2013, though the plans were largely in place, former aides said. The report is silent on Clinton’s role in the reductions, or views about them.
“There was a period of time after the transition from the military-led mission to a civilian-led mission when strategic decisions were not made, with one official calling the period ‘a strategic vacuum,'” the inspector general’s office said in its 2013 report, citing interviews with department officials in Washington and Iraq. It said the cuts were driven by “Congressional and White House concerns that the Department quickly reduce costs and security vulnerabilities and address [the Iraqi government’s] desire for a more normalized U.S. diplomatic presence.”
Among the casualties was a U.S. Army-run Iraqi tribal reconciliation program with a record of successfully resolving disputes between Iraq’s querulous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. Animosity between Sunni tribes and Maliki’s Shiite-led government would become a key factor in the Islamic State’s takeover of Iraq’s Sunni heartland in 2014.
Asked to account for such cuts, a State Department spokesman said in an email that diplomats lacked “the personnel or financial resources” to continue many of the programs begun by the Pentagon during an era when tens of thousands of U.S. troops were serving in Iraq. In any event, the result was “lost trust with the Sunni community” and the abandoning of an important window into what was really happening inside Iraq, said retired Army Col. Rick Welch, who oversaw the program before the military withdrawal,
“No one from the State Department ever contacted me,” Welch said in an interview. Eventually the Baghdad-based reconciliation effort was scaled back “to a trickle,” he said, “and then nothing else happened.”
‘It Was the President’s Directive’
In the first weeks of his presidency, President Obama flew to Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine base in North Carolina, to repeat a promise made throughout his election campaign: a pledge to wind down America’s wars in the Middle East. He told the troops that “the war in Iraq will end” through a responsible drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, the deadline set three years earlier by the George W. Bush administration.
In reality, few within Obama’s own administration expected that the entire U.S. contingent would exit Iraq by that date, current and former aides say. In interviews, State Department and Pentagon officials said they were convinced that Iraq would ultimately negotiate an agreement to leave a modest contingent of U.S. soldiers — perhaps 10,000 or so — in the country to ensure stability and serve as a bulwark against a resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The presence of even a small American force would have provided a substantial benefit for U.S. diplomats in Iraq after 2011, assuring that the Pentagon would continue to take the lead in U.S.-Iraqi military liaison programs while also helping with mundane but necessary functions such as security, medical care, food service and transportation on the ground and in the air.
But with a deadline looming and no firm decision from the White House, the State Department began to develop plans for hiring thousands of contractors to perform the same services at higher costs. The uncertainty lingered until October 2011, when the talks collapsed just 10 weeks before the deadline for pulling all U.S. forces out of the country.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.