Not Afghanistan: Why the U.S. and Iraq won't leave one another

Published : July 28, 2021 20:28 IST

After 18 years, Iraq is saying goodbye to U.S. combat troops. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

While agreeing this week to a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, neither Iraqi nor U.S. leaders can admit publicly how much they need each other.

This week, the heads of the Iraqi and U.S. governments agreed to conclude the American combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. The decision was made by US President Joe Biden and Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi after they met in Washington on July 26.

"The security relationship will fully transition to a training, advising, assisting and intelligence-sharing role," said a joint statement, issued by both countries after what was called a "strategic dialogue." "There will be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021," it added.

The statement also noted that bases used by U.S. personnel were "Iraqi bases and are operating per existing Iraqi laws" and that any international soldiers were there strictly to help in the fight against the extremist group known as the "Islamic State" (IS). Mustafa al-Kadhimi (left) and U.S. counterpart Joe Biden agreed the end of the U.S. combat mission on July 26

Angry Iraqis

The agreement comes as no surprise to observers and locals, because it is the indirect result of events in January 2020. On January 3 that year, senior Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi military leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed by a U.S. drone strike as they were leaving Baghdad airport. Both men were senior commanders of the semi-official, Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq.

Angered by the extrajudicial assassination on Iraqi soil, local politicians voted later in January to expel all U.S. soldiers. This week's decision is the result of that non-binding parliamentary vote. However, as has been noted elsewhere, despite the fanfare with which this conscious uncoupling was announced, this isn't a wholesale withdrawal of the drastic kind recently experienced in Afghanistan. The decision is more likely to see U.S. troops shuffled around and their roles redefined than any reduction in troop numbers. There are currently around 2,500 US soldiers in the country.

Diplomatic show

The New York Times described the new agreement as "a set piece of diplomatic theater," and Sabereen News, a channel on the Telegram messenger service dedicated to the PMF, exclaimed angrily: "No American soldier will be withdrawn ... their description will be changed on paper!" Sabereen issued several messages saying they would continue to fight U.S. forces, using the hashtag #الانسحاب_بشروط_المقاومة, or "#withdrawal on our terms."

So why all the theatrics? Most likely because ongoing tolerance for the U.S. presence in Iraq is a kind of open secret, something that almost everyone in power tacitly agrees upon but that politicians on all sides won't talk about publicly.

"Most Iraqi leaders, including those who don't say it openly, do recognize the importance of having the U.S. there," Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London-based policy institute Chatham House, told DW. "And very few Iraqi leaders, including some armed leaders, want the US to completely withdraw and sever ties," he explains, referring to leaders of the Iran-backed militias thought to be behind ongoing drone attacks on bases used by U.S. troops as well as on U.S. supply convoys. 

"More generally, the U.S. also provides cover for much of Western representation in Iraq," Mansour confirmed. If the U.S. left altogether, it's likely that other countries like the UK and Germany would follow suit. If that happened, Iraq would become "a pariah state," Mansour added, "one that's closed off to the world."

And this is not something that even Iran — the U.S.' avowed adversary in Iraq — necessarily wants. Iran also benefits from having neighboring Iraq open to the world when Iran itself is beset by sanctions and shunned by much of the international community, Mansour noted.

No combat troops

"The U.S. forces are seen as creating a balance and deterring Iran," a senior source inside the Iraqi government told DW; they had to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to speak to media. Iraq's political system is balanced between its three major demographic groups — Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and the Kurds — and if U.S. forces withdraw altogether, the Sunni Muslims and Kurds worry that Iran-backed Shiite Muslim forces would fill any security vacuum.

 

Announcing this week's decision, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi said that Iraq no longer needs combat troops. "And this is true," the senior official agreed. "But in practical terms, we still need US forces here, particularly when it comes to air cover and combat aircraft. The Iraqi air force is comparatively weak, and if it wasn't for the U.S. Air Force, the country would be far more vulnerable to external drone attacks, and it would also have difficulty mounting aerial attacks on the IS group. The Iraqi military also needs the U.S.' intelligence on the IS terrorists."

Perhaps most important, though, is the training, the senior official argued. "We need to make sure our army is neutral, strong and professional. If their capabilities decline, then again that would favor the [Iran-loyal] paramilitaries."

Best approach

As for the U.S., a complete withdrawal would damage American interests, too, analysts from the California-based research organization Rand concluded in a May 2020 report on that country's options in Iraq. After looking at various possibilities, including complete withdrawal, Rand researchers wrote that the best answer for America lay somewhere in the middle, with the maintenance of a small force of advisers and trainers.

"Supporting a stable and friendly Iraq is in the continuing long-term interest of the U.S.," they argued. "Long-term presence also sustains US influence in Iraq, which, in turn, can help to blunt Iranian, Russian and other malign influence."

U.S. troops have been in Iraq since 2003, when around 125,000 American soldiers arrived in March of that year, ostensibly to destroy "weapons of mass destruction." The invasion toppled Iraq's long-standing dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Annual transitions

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009 with promises to pull out of Iraq, numbers began to fall steadily. And U.S. troops have supposedly been "transitioning to an advisory role" for years now, as foreign policy observers have pointed out on Twitter. The same sort of language was being used as far back as 2007 and 2009.

The emergence of the "Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria in 2014 saw Iraq's need for US military aid increase once again. Unable to mount a significant defense at first, the Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurdish forces were heavily dependent on US aerial strikes to fend off the extremists. Around 5,000 U.S. soldiers were in the country at that stage. The IS extremists have since been more or less defeated, so this number has steadily reduced. Late last year President Trump decreased the total to 2,500.

As for ordinary Iraqis themselves, Monday's purely political agreement is unlikely to change much for them. Once-ubiquitous American checkpoints have long gone. Now, city checkpoints are mostly manned by Iraqis, soldiers or members of the PMF. And other than hearing about U.S. drone or aerial strikes, most ordinary Iraqis haven't seen an American soldier in the flesh for years.

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