Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has the distinction of having served in Iraq longer than any other U.S. commander, having spent four years deployed there. Odierno arrived in Iraq at the height of the war in 2006 and ended up becoming the top U.S. commander during some of the war’s darkest years. He eventually saw better days as the war went on and the violence dropped before U.S. troops left completely in 2011.
Odierno said Monday that U.S. troops left Iraq, it’s military and police in good shape, capable of governing and protecting itself.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to all of us to see the deterioration of the security inside of Iraq. I spent a lot of my life over there. From 2006, end of 2006 to September 2010, I was there as we continued to reduce the level of violence and the sectarian violence that was going on. I believe we left it in a place where it was capable to move forward,” Odierno said during National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C.
Odierno brushed off criticism that had a residual force of U.S. troops stayed in Iraq, the country wouldn’t be spiraling into civil war now. “We can all be Monday morning quarterbacks on this. The answer is: ‘I don’t know what the answer is to that,’” Odierno said. “What I do know, as I said earlier, we provided them an opportunity. When we departed in 2011 the levels of violence in Iraq were the lowest they’d been in a very, very, very long time. Their economy was growing, they were exporting more oil, they had a political system in place that appeared to be working.”
Odierno was clear that this is Iraq’s problem now, but didn’t rule out providing more help in the future.
“I would say this is certainly not the time to put American troops on the ground. I think it’s time for them to step up and see what they can do and we have to just wait to see and see if it becomes part of our national security interest to put people on the ground. I think right now our goal is to let them take care of this problem,” he said.
“But this is not just about Iraq,” Odierno said. “In my mind, it’s something that we have to be cognizant of as we look across the Middle East – what’s going on in Syria, what’s going on in Lebanon, what’s going on inside of Iraq.” The general said the U.S. is looking closely at “who will try to take advantage of this.”
“The biggest threat to our national security is this ungoverned territory becomes areas where we have terrorist organizations that become dominant and then try to export their terrorism outside of the Middle East and into several other countries, including the United States.”
Odierno, whose son lost his arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, was also asked to respond to a recent article by Marine Corps veteran and journalist Paul Szoldra, titled “Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die in Iraq?”
“The bottom line is we raise our right hand in order to defend the Constitution of the United States and when we do that we are prepared to go forward and do what is necessary, as we’re asked to do by our civilian leadership in order to provide security for this nation. That’s what we did in Iraq at a time when it was believed that we need to go there, our military went. We prepared, we went. I believe we left in in a way that enabled it to move forward.”