WASHINGTON — New Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warned on Thursday that leaving too many U.S. troops in Iraq after this year would be “counterproductive.”
Odierno’s comments follow several news reports this week saying the White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were considering leaving 3,000 to 5,000 troops in Iraq past Dec. 31, well below the force size of 10,000 or more troops that most believed the Pentagon would leave, if Iraqi leaders agreed.
The general, the former commander of the Iraq War, said he hesitated to pitch an exact troop number, leaving that decision for current Iraq War commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and Central Command’s Gen. James Mattis.
“I will say, when I was leaving Iraq a year ago, I always felt we had to be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq. I’m not saying 3,000 to 5,000 is the right number, but what I would say is there comes a time, and I’ve said this before, where it becomes counterproductive,” Odierno said in a roundtable briefing with reporters in the Pentagon, one day after his swearing in.
He later added that leaving a larger force behind also leaves the U.S. open to criticism of being an “occupation force.”
“We get away from why we’re really there, which is to help them to continue to develop. …I’m not quite sure what the right number is but there’s a number there somewhere that is -- you’ve got be careful about. Because we want to be seen there as, really, there now assisting them to develop, not there directing them, not there trying to tell them what to do. They really have to be self-reliant now.”
Odierno said he believed the U.S. “probably” would leave a base outside of Baghdad.
Shortly afterward, during their first joint Pentagon press briefing, the Defense Department’s new dual spokesman team of press secretary George Little and Navy Capt. John Kirby were asked if Odierno’s caution was shared by the Defense Department.
“I think that to speculate at this point while we’re in the middle of discussions with the Iraqis really wouldn’t be productive,” said Little, sticking with the Pentagon’s refusals to comment publicly about the negotiations.
Kirby, less cautious, said, “I understand what Gen. Odierno is saying — it’s not an uncommon thought. I mean, we faced this discussion in Afghanistan as well. You remember General [Stanley] McChrystal would talk about [how] it’s not so much the size of the footprint, it’s what the troops are doing.”
Odierno said though he did not know the details of current discussions about the type of help Iraqis want from the U.S. military, there remained lingering missions, including handing over control of training programs to Iraqis, fielding new equipment that was promised and protecting the expanded mission of the State Department, which takes over from the Defense Department after this year.
“We need to probably be there to assist them at certain levels for a while,” he said.
Odierno succeeded Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next month.