At Camp Lejeune after President Obama’s announcement, I had a chance to ask a few questions of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.
Would the president have been able to make today’s announcement without the success of the surge of troops in Iraq?
"Clearly what the surge has provided is the opportunity for success to be sustained and for us to accomplish our longer-range goals in Iraq," Gates said. "So there was nothing that would have prevented the president from making a different decision without the surge, but it clearly has put us in a very different place in terms of where Iraq is."
Mullen agreed, saying the surge "did create the kind of the decision space and opportunities that the secretary talked about."
Why set a 19 month deadline for the withdrawal of combat troops and not 16 months as the president pledged on the campaign trail? Why not 23 months, as some in the Pentagon suggested?
"The recommendations came up from the field," Mullen said. "We looked at a lot of options: the 16-month, 19-month, 23-month. And in fact hearing from commanders on the ground, actually even as those recommendations came up, conditions continued to improve. And it was the cumulative judgment of the Chiefs, it was a realization or an acceptance we were at moderate risk overall, and a comfort level."
Gates added that one of the considerations was that the commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odeirno, "would like to have as much force as he can keep in Iraq through the national elections in December (2009) and for some short period after that just to make sure that everyone is accepting the results of the election."
To then try to get most of the IS forces out of Iraq "by, say, May 2010, also would have presented some significant logistical challenges," Gates said.
And what does it mean, if anything, to say the up to 50,000 US troops remaining in Iraq after August 2010 are not "combat" troops?
Mullen said "more than anything" it means "big, heavy" combat brigade units will be moved out of Iraq by that date.
"The other big thing," Mullen said, "is to re-mission everbody. Clearly, you can’t have people there without having force protection and it takes troops to be able to do that."
President Obama, he added, "was very specific about counter-terrorism troops" remaining, "and from that standpoint they have a combat mission."
But the "big brigades and battallions … will be in remission by the end of August 2010."