Pentagon Chief Says ‘No Decision Whatsoever’ to Leave Iraq After Memo Confusion

January 7, 2020by Tara Copp McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on Dec. 20, 2019 in Arlington, Va. Esper siad Monday that the U.S. has made "no decision whatsoever" to pull troops from Iraq. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The United States has made “no decision whatsoever” to pull troops out of Iraq, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday after a Defense Department memo to an Iraqi military official surfaced discussing moving U.S. forces.

The comments came one day after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops from the country after the United States conducted a drone strike killing a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, near the Baghdad airport.

The United States has accused Soleimani of escalating attacks on Americans and bearing responsibility for roadside bombs that had killed hundreds of U.S. service members.

The Defense Department memo that surfaced Monday discussed “repositioning forces” as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and Prime Minister, and concluded with “we respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

Pentagon officials responded that the memo was a mistake and there had been no decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

“There’s been no decision made to leave Iraq, period,” Esper told reporters.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said the memo did not reflect the current position of the Pentagon.

“It was a mistake, an honest mistake,” Milley said. “A draft, unsigned letter, because we are moving forces around, and we have increased helicopter movement.”

Milley said when he called the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie used even more colorful language to describe the accidental release of the memo.

It had been sent to Iraqi generals to coordinate movement, and the language in the memo that the military would be repositioning in the coming days “for onward movement,” was “poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That’s not what’s happening,” Milley said.

Both Esper and Milley said that the United States is currently repositioning forces to bolster force protection. The military is moving troops by helicopter throughout the country, and bringing in some through Kuwait to boost defenses, Milley said.

Last week, the Pentagon deployed about 3,500 additional troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Kuwait. Those forces will be used to bolster defenses throughout the region and respond to any Iranian retaliation.

Iran has vowed revenge for Soleimani’s killing, promising to target U.S. service members.

The United States currently has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, a residual force from the U.S. and coalition campaign to defeat Islamic State.

NATO on Saturday announced that it was suspending its training and advising mission in Iraq, citing security concerns. Those forces instead will focus on their own security, according to Canada, which currently leads the training mission.

Milley said the U.S. military had considered the impact of the airstrike on Soleimani.

“When we looked at this operation, we knew there would be consequences. We knew there would be risks,” Milley said. “We didn’t take any of it lightly.”

As for U.S. forces in Iraq, “we knew we would have to adjust their posture, their force protection posture in the immediate aftermath of this particular strike operation,” Milley said.

The airstrike, which was not conducted in consultation with Congress, and the increased risk of direct armed conflict with Iran it has created has prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call for a new vote on the congressional authorization of the use of military force (AUMF).

Esper and Milley, who will go to Capitol Hill this week to give members closed-door briefings on the airstrike and its aftermath, said they expect members will ask them for input on whether the authorization should be reconsidered and reauthorized.

Esper said he thinks the existing authorization, approved by Congress after the 9/11 attacks, is sufficient.

“As we’ve said over and over again, we think the current AUMFs are sufficient, give us the authority we need … in order to protect the United States from terrorist activity.”

In the days following the U.S. strike, the Pentagon has also faced questions on what immediate threat it had discovered that prompted the strike on Soleimani now, rather than in previous months or years when the United States says he also had directed attacks on Americans.

Milley said, “very few people saw that intelligence. He (Esper) and I saw that intelligence. And I will be happy when the time comes in front of the proper committees and anybody else, through history, I’ll stand by the intelligence I saw.”


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