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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno testifies before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in Washington, Jan. 28, 2015.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno testifies before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in Washington, Jan. 28, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has told Fox News that the U.S. could have prevented the rise of the Islamic State if it had remained fully engaged in Iraq rather than remove all its troops at the end of 2011.

“If we had stayed a little more engaged, I think maybe it might have been prevented,” Odierno said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve always believed the United States played the role of honest broker between all the groups and when we pulled ourselves out, we lost that role.”

President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all American troops at the end of 2011 has come under fire before from critics in Congress and the media. But Odierno’s criticism is noteworthy because he served longer in Iraq than any other U.S. general and commanded all U.S. and coalition forces there from 2008 until 2010. He is weeks away from retirement after 39 years in uniform.

“It’s frustrating to watch it,” Odierno said. “I go back to the work we did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and we got it to a place that was really good. Violence was low, the economy was growing, politics looked like it was heading in the right direction.”

In 2009, Odierno recommended maintaining 30,000-35,000 U.S. troops after the end of 2011 in a training and advisory role but the White House rejected the recommendation after the Iraqis turned down American demands that remaining forces be shielded from prosecution or lawsuits. Critics have alleged that Obama could have overcome Iraqi objections through stronger negotiations.

“I think it would have been good for us to stay,” Odierno said.

When fighters from the Islamic State, also known by acronyms ISIS and ISIL, swarmed across northern and western Iraq last year, the White House did not seek Odierno’s advice directly despite his years of service in Iraq.

“All my work was given to Chairman Dempsey,” Odierno said, referring to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. “I never talked directly to the president about it at that time, but I talked to the secretary of defense and I’m sure he relayed all of my thoughts.”

During the interview, Odierno expressed concerns about deep cuts to the Army from 570,000 troops in 2010 to near 490,000 today. The Army recently announced an additional cut of 40,000 troops, which will pare down the Army to 450,000 soldiers, below levels when al-Qaida launched the 9/11 attacks.

“In my mind, we don’t have the ability to deter. The reason we have a military is to deter conflict and prevent wars. And if people believe we are not big enough to respond, they miscalculate,” Odierno said.

“Two years ago, we didn’t think we had a problem in Europe,” he added. (Now) Russia is reasserting themselves. We didn’t think we’d have a problem again in Iraq and ISIS has emerged. So, with Russia becoming more of a threat, with ISIS becoming more of a threat, in my mind, we are on a dangerous balancing act right now with capability.”

“When we go to 450, we are going to have to stop doing something,” said Odierno.

news@stripes.com

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