“The focus will be on making sure there is direct communication between the commanders and the president-elect, so that he can make an informed decision about the way ahead,” Morrell said.
“The secretary, I believe, wishes to conduct a similar process to the one that he has conducted as these decisions have been made over the past couple of years,” he continued. “[A process] in which the president — the commander in chief — gets to hear from virtually every commander with a vested interest in this particular area of the world.”
These leaders include Gates, the Pentagon’s civilian chief; Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command; Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the service’s joint chiefs, Morrell said.
“It means [they] will all get to speak — if the secretary is able to do this — directly with the president, so that President-elect Obama gets a wide variety of views, a number of varying perspectives … about what they believe to be the proper course,” he said.
Gates met with Odierno and Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, over the weekend in Balad, Iraq, to discuss future force strength and other topics.
“They had a lengthy and very good conversation about the proposed way ahead in Iraq in the coming year, including force levels during the coming year,” Morrell said of the Dec. 13 meeting. He noted that future force levels are dependent on events on the ground in Iraq next year, including elections at the provincial, district and national levels.
On the heels of his trip to the Middle East, Gates flew to Chicago to meet with Obama and his national security team. Attending the meeting was Mullen, who, at Gates’ request, briefed the group on “the current thinking about the way ahead in Iraq,” Morrell said.
“The secretary described that conversation, that discussion, as an excellent one,” Morrell said. “He said he feels as though the group has already exhibited excellent chemistry.”
Morrell noted that Washington and Baghdad at any time could renegotiate the agreement on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, though there are no plans to do so. But he provided a glimpse into the secretary’s thinking if the timeline were extended beyond 2011.
“[Gates] could see where a force in the size of tens of thousands, as he said, would still be needed to help the Iraqi military continue to grow, continue in its training, and also provide the kind of support that it cannot provide for itself at this point, whether it be through logistics or aviation or intelligence or other means,” Morrell said.