Defense Department Announces NO PLAN For Iraq. It Can't Fail!
To call what happened yesterday at the Defense Department a dumpster fire would be a massive understatement. Truly it was such an epic clusterfuck that, in any normal administration, half the leadership would have hired lawyers already amid bipartisan congressional demands for an independent investigation. But with Commander Crazypants going apeshit in the Oval, it'll probably wind up being just a one-day story.
As best we can work out, around noon in DC an Iraqi media outlet run by the pro-Iranian militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which has fought Americans in Iraq and Syria for more than a decade, published a letter from United States Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, commander of America's Iraq Task Force, to his counterpart in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. In an apparent reference to Sunday's parliamentary vote to ask America to withdraw its military, it read, "Sir, in due deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement."
By 2:40, Agence France Presse reported that the US was pulling out of Iraq, and by 3 p.m., every major news outlet in the world had the story.
Except the Pentagon, which knew nothing about it. So all hell broke loose at the DOD, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper -- who along with Mike Pompeo talked Trump into this disastrous assassination of Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil that prompted the Iraqis to give us the boot -- tried to figure out what was going on. Well-oiled machine!
At first, defense officials insisted that the letter was authentic, just "poorly worded," telling the Washington Post off the record that the letter was just "General Seely's attempt to notify the Iraqis that we are going to be moving people around Iraq … This is not an indication that we're leaving." You know, just locker room talk about "conduct[ing] these operations during hours of darkness to alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more Coalition forces into the IZ."
At 4 p.m. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley hastily convened an off-camera press conference to explain that, yes, of course they had thought through the possibility that the Iraqis might tell us to get the hell out of their country if we killed an Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader on their soil without getting their okay.
As for the mystery letter, Esper said, "We're trying to find out where that's coming from, what that is. But there has been no decision made to leave Iraq, period." Clearly not, since our demented Commander in Chief is saying maybe we won't leave until they pay us back for all the military bases we stuck in their country after 17 Saudis attacked us and we decided to get back at them by blowing up Iraq and creating a vacuum for Al Qaeda, ISIS, and every militia in the Middle East to come flooding in. (Yeah, fine, that is a gross oversimplification. Here's a better one from Rep. Elissa Slotkin.)
Later he suggested that we're not leaving Iraq, we're just moving our troops to other countries in the region. That is, if the letter is authentic. "Well, I said up front that we are repositioning forces throughout the region, number one. Beyond that, with regard to that letter, which I've read once; I can't tell you the veracity of that letter, and I can tell you what I read. That letter is inconsistent with where we are right now." After which, he made as dignified a retreat as possible leaving the reporters to reconcile his insistence that we're staying in Iraq with a letter that says, "We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure."
WAIT FOR IT ...
"That letter — it was a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released," the Post quotes Gen. Milley saying. "And the first part of it, which says 'repositioning forces over the course of the coming days to prepare for onward movement' … [was] poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That is not what's happening." And we had to get this quote from the Post because it's not on the transcript the DOD published last night.
Well, glad we got that str-- .... Whoops, hang on, they've got yet another version of the story!
As hilarious as it was to think about some poor schlub accidentally hitting send on a draft version of an email, the real story appears to be slightly more complicated. The Post reports that this was a draft sent to our Iraqi partners to coordinate details before an official, signed version is released. But some sort of way a copy of it was immediately leaked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is only delighted to see the Iraqi government send us packing.
The U.S. military drafted the letter because it is moving forces around the region, within Iraq and from Kuwait into Iraq, and anticipates increased helicopter movement, Milley said, noting that draft letters are often coordinated with partners in advance, but are circulated without the signature of the official sending the communication.
And while Gen. Milley didn't speculate as to how it got into the hands of an Iranian militia group whose leader is designated a terrorist by the US government, we're going to go out on a limb and say that killing Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraqi territory, then threatening to impose debilitating sanctions if their country doesn't allow us to use it as a forward operating base for upcoming hostilities with Iran has probably not endeared us to our counterparts in the Iraqi military.
So Esper and Milley were immediately dispatched to deny the upcoming pullout, either because we're stalling for time in hopes that the Iraqis don't actually evict us, or because no one at DOD has managed to break the news of our imminent departure to our wackjob Commander in Chief, or for some other reason. Who the hell knows with this crew!
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Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.