In testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the United States has an interest in keeping troops in Iraq beyond 2011, citing the security problems that the Iraqi government would face in the event of a complete U.S. withdrawal.
Under questioning from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Gates said that the U.S. government still plans to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of the year, as was agreed under the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, leaving only about 150 Defense Department personnel at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Hunter, however, continued to press Gates for his personal opinion on the matter.
"How can we maintain all of these gains that we've made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don't have any military there whatsoever," Hunter asked. "We'd have more military in Western European countries at that point than we'd have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?"
Gates responded that not only was it in the U.S. interest to keep more troops in country, but that the Iraqis need more American troops there as well.
"The truth of the matter is, the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they're going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers," Gates testified. "They will not be able to do the kind of job in intelligence fusion. They won't be able to protect their own airspace. They will have problems with logistics and maintenance."
Gates won't be around in 2012; he's pledged to leave office sometime this year. But he told Congress that the U.S. government will honor its commitment to completely withdraw from Iraq in 2011, even if he personally doesn't think it's a good idea for either country.
"It's their country. It's a sovereign country," Gates said. "This is the agreement that was signed by President Bush and the Iraqi government, and we will abide by the agreement unless the Iraqis ask us to have additional people there."